In which we give marketing advice to MMO publishers

Gravity noted via twitter that he’d offered some suggestions to Flying Labs (creators of Pirates of the Burning Sea) on how to improve their website to better attract new players – it’s a post on their suggestions forum.

<…> new users will make a fairly quick prejudicial judgement on whether to download the game. They’ll be asking questions like, will I get ganked, how much does it really cost to play and enjoy it, and what are the features.

Answers to these questions should be easy to find.

Sounds sensible, right?

So what advice would you give to your favourite game as to how better to attract new players or draw back returning ones? (Advice like ‘completely redesign your game’ probably isn’t useful.)

Here’s a couple of thoughts:

LOTRO: It’s difficult to draw players into an older game because they’ll tend to assume it’s less good than whatever they are currently playing. But LOTRO has a lot of unique selling points – the lore, the skirmishes, the great epic storylines, and the friendliness of the player base. They really should be pushing the friendliness more because it would draw in exactly the sorts of players they want. So I’d suggest for them a social push with lots of inducements to share information on social networking sites.

WoW: The price of entry is way high, especially since if you really did want to buy all the expansions it’s about twice as expensive if you do so online via Blizzard as if you just buy them from Amazon. (I know this because I checked earlier.) Just bundle the dratted things together and halve the price and loads more people would buy it if they liked the trial.

Sony: Oh. Haha. This online thing just isn’t working out for you is it? Sorry, I got nothing.

Prepare to be boarded!

Amidst a sea of feverish dreams, I have a vague memory of having completed a very silly quest line in Pirates of the Burning Sea all to do with your own true love. And a spool through my screenshot archive proves that it really happened … (incidentally you are free to pick male or female love interests) with some example quest text.

pirates_lurve

Perhaps disappointingly, and giving a prime example of why romantic(?) storytelling and quest based MMOs don’t work, his book suggested using violin playing skills to distract the watchful brother/ sister while you flirted with your object of desire.

In practice this involves

  • /fiddle tariq
  • ((run quickly upstairs))
  • /flirt malika
  • /flirt malika
  • /flirt malika

I don’t know about you but … yeah somewhere in there, the feeling is gone. Still, fair play to Flying Lab, campy carry-on romance plots do seem to fit very well in the pirates/ Caribbean setting.

[Pirates] The lure of a real world setting

potbs_navycoat

As you can see, my Naval Officer character in Pirates of the Burning Sea is going up in the world. This was taken approximately two coats ago – I’m measuring my levels in coats because every so often you get a career quest which is rewarded with a new title and piece of cosmetic clothing. PotBS also allows you to change how your character looks or dresses whenever you like without penalty. And of course you can pick all the colours from a palette. I just like ‘blood and custard’ as a colour scheme.

As a naval officer your cosmetic rewards are miilitary style coats. This is one of the first rewards and I think it looks hot.

It is also a tribute to the game and players that I was wondering aloud on one of the global channels whether the navy really had a uniform in this era … and at least two other players knew the answer. (Which was no :) ).

What’s so special about the real world?

For me, a setting which is based on a true story or real historical places and events has a special resonance that I don’t get with pure fantasy or scifi.

This weekend, I saw The King’s Speech (awesome film, btw). I had a shiver up my spine when he gives his big speech in the climactic scene, not just because the acting was superb, but because I knew that all of my grandparents would very probably have been hanging on every word at the time. For a moment, it wasn’t just a story on the screen. It got personal.

Real life is personal in a way that game worlds can rarely be. Real places and people have a significance that Orgrimmar or Bree never can … as long as the developers and writers get them right.

The level of detail and research in Pirates for its real world historical setting is one of the reasons I’m so enthralled with the game at the moment. And the prospect of a well implemented real world setting is one of the reasons I’m looking forwards to hearing more about The Secret World and World of Darkness (still no announcement on CCP’s site) games.

And in which I back off from complicated things

I was feeling sufficiently guilty about enjoying PotBS for free and gratis that I subbed up for a month. It was that or a pet chicken!

The way the accounts work is similar to LOTRO, except that you can do a lot more on a F2P account here, with full access to all the content except for one high level epic questline. Once you are subscribed you get more character slots, dockyard slots, and economy slots on your account, and those extra slots stay with you even after you unsubscribe. You also get 10% bonuses for experience, faction rep, and chances to get loot while subscribed.

So subbing for a month and then returning to F2P is a totally valid choice which lets me support a game I really like, adds some useful but non-vital account enhancements that will help when exploring the economy in more depth, and get an xp boost for the duration as well.

I had been wondering how well the very generous F2P setup had been working for the development team here. But given that a large part of the endgame is down to player generated PvP, I can see that a constant boost of players to PvP will do a lot to keep existing subscribers in the game. Just by being there and playing, the F2P people are contributing in a fairly major way.

I have only barely scratched the surface of how PvP and the economy works in this game. Planning to investigate those both in more detail, but since I’m nowhere near level 50 yet, there’s plenty of time. What I do know is that the global channels have been very active with encouraging people to help take ports or get involved during prime time, so it feels as though there is plenty going on.

Sailing off for ADVENTURE in a sandbox game

pirate_snow

This is my new ship in Pirates of the Burning Sea, under full sail, attempting to sail against the wind. I think after this shot was taken I was either in the process of turning or decided to tack  – ie. sail in zig zags – to get closer to the shallows.

She’s called ‘HMS Justifiable Homicide,’ a name which incidentally was too long to be used as a ship name in Star Trek Online. And as you can see in the picture, she’s flying British colours. Huzzah!

Despite this fact, we’re all setting terrible examples and ripping up the Caribbean attacking/ capturing any random object that gets in the way. So fairly historically accurate in that respect.

Although the game does have a full complement of quests, there are also plenty of other things to do which is where the sandbox aspect comes in. You have more freedom to decide what sort of role you’d like to play than in a game like WoW. If you want to be a crafter/ trader, you may occasionally need to run through a port blockade but you will never need to trade shots with anyone if you don’t want to. (And you’ll have access to fairly sturdy trade ships to help out.) You could also be a trader without crafting, specialising in hauling goods from one port to another so that you can buy low and sell high.  Or there is always piracy, faction combat, or trying to become the governer of a port.

In any case, I had a ton of fun with Sven and the Consoling Gamers crew last week. I love that you can just join up into a fleet, and  sail off looking for adventure (in the shape of thumbing your nose at the french fleets, attacking stupidly high level NPCs, baiting the PC pirates and other random encounters). It’s like Swallows and Amazons meets Pirates of the Caribbean!

And this is one of the really characteristic things of a sandbox game. No major restrictions on what you can do. If you want to be in a group with someone 30 levels lower and attack someone 20 levels higher, the game will let you do it and there may even be a non zero chance of success.

Things that I love about this game:

  • Naval combat. It’s always been the lynchpin of the game, and it’s beautifully put together. I think it plays better than STO combat because of the wind factors so if you enjoy that, try this.
  • It’s also a very pretty game, the graphics aren’t always all that but they put a lot of effort into the sailing and you can see your guys climb the rigging when you order them to put up the sails, and scurry around trying to repair cannons and decking when under attack.
  • Being allowed to attack high level enemies. In themepark games like WoW, there are often mechanics that mean you just can’t hit an enemy who is too far above you in level (mostly put in to stop kiting.) In a game like this, you can hit them. You might not do much damage but you can hit them.
  • I also love that a disparate bunch of players of different levels and experiences can go off and do something fun together in game.
  • I love that I find myself using words like ‘tack’ when I’m describing how I sail my ship in game.
  • Playing the Pirates of the Caribbean theme on youtube while we’re attacking stuff!

[Pirates] Happy Caribbean Christmas!

Last night we went to see Tron Legacy (short review: pacey, exciting, great graphics, and light cycles have never looked this good – but disappointing in that it failed totally to build on the rather cool themes of the original story) and one of the trailers was for Pirates of the Caribbean 4. (A film about which I’m pretty excited because a) Geoffrey Rush upstaging Johnny Depp in every joint scene and b) it’s based on a goddamn Tim Powers book!)

And being in the piratical mindset, it seemed time to take a longer look at Pirates of the Burning Sea, which recently switched to a Free to Play/ Cash Shop basis. Arrrrr!

potbs_jennybay

Bloggers have claimed that you need to play an MMO intensively for several months to really get a good feel for it, and while there’s something in that, I also think that within 30 mins or so I should be able to get a sense of what a game is about. Pirates does a stunning job in that respect.

I’m never really sure what the ideal newbie experience should be like. Should it be a carefully scripted in media res storylike experience which draws you into your new character and the game world? Should it focus more on introducing you to the UI? Or is it enough if you just want to keep playing after the newbie quests are done?

potbs_alice

With the Pirates opening sequence, you first get to create your character. And this is one of the high points of the game, for me, because they tend to look absolutely stunning.

You can choose between British, French, Spanish, or Pirate as your faction of choice and then have a vast array of clothing options alongside the usual skin colour/ hairstyle/ facial hair (for guys) etc. I do love the clothing of this era and PotBS loves it just as much as I do.

After that, there’s a practice naval skirmish, controls of which will be familiar to anyone who played Sid Meier’s Pirates or Star Trek Online and a practice fencing bout which follows the more typical MMO model. Then a chance to explore the starting town, which is interrupted with another scripted sequence where you get  to use your newfound duelling and naval skills in anger.

And while exploring the town and talking to NPCs, I find that there’s a deep sandbox aspect to this MMO. Players can become Governers of towns, they can take part in a player based crafting and merchant economy (which, like EVE, requires you to travel between ports to access the best prices) and there seems to be a lively faction based PvP game as well. Also, if you are arty, you can design your own flags/ sails and upload them to your ship (they charge for this, which strikes me as reasonable).

potbs_church

Whatever the locals do for Christmas, it clearly doesn’t involve going to the church, which was fairly empty. Instead, as I wandered into town, I ran into the local Christmas event in the shape of a drunk Irishman who inveigled my new captain into taking him round town to sing to some of the local people about burying a wren – apparently connected with his home traditions.

Pirates loves its lore with a deep and abiding passion that seeps into every part of the game. On the Christmas quest, I got to learn about how the Spanish, the French, and the English celebrated Christmas in the Caribbean in this era and it felt very solidly researched. There’s an attention to detail in this game which totally won me over.

potbs_britishxmas

I was also totally bowled over by the sound track. As I wandered around town, the sounds reflected the area I was in. If I walked next to the chickens, I could hear them clucking. If I went to the fiddle player and dancers in a corner, I could hear the violin and the laughing. If I wandered closer to some gossiping women, I could HEAR what they were saying.

Not only that, but all the music is put together with period sensibilities in mind. The instruments sound authentic, so do the songs. It’s just a brilliant demonstration of how much sound can add to a game, without needing everything to be fully voiced, Bioware-style.

So although my game time at the moment is mostly taken by Cataclysm, this is definitely a game I intend to play for awhile longer. (So if anyone knows any friendly guilds on EU-timezones who can put up with newbies, feel free to note them in comments.) I can’t comment on play balance or how well all the various elements work, but there’s something very cool and different going on here, with a theme unlike anything else you’ll find in the genre.

The players on the general channels also seemed friendly and helpful, something which you often find on smaller games where players are more conscious that every new player who gets hooked is someone else for them to play with in future.

 

So if you are finding that WoW is a bit linear at the moment, and have any interest in pirates or historical sandbox type games, give this one a look.

Gaming News: Pirates of the Burning Sea goes F2P, Jedi Sage in SWTOR, EQ2 Vampires, Betas for Rift and TF2, LOTRO F2P tweaks

This week will mark the release of possibly the biggest PC game launch of the year. It’s also a game which will be downloaded directly by a large number of players (possibly even the majority) and will no doubt be showing up in a lot of Xmas stockings and making a lot of gamers, both casual and hardcore very happy, especially if the developer is up to their usual standards.

I speak of course of Bejeweled 3 (subtitle – what else can we do with a 3 colour match game?).

Joking aside, I love Popcap and there’s no reason not to think this’ll be great. I can see me buying a few copies as presents for gamer-friendly friends/ family. Plus it’s something to do while waiting in WoW server queues for Cataclysm.

Speaking of which, Blizzard have released a final release trailer for the new WoW expansion. It’s called The World Reborn and is a flythrough of some of the new stuff – that elemental plane of air looks incredible.

In other news, EA have announced that they will be looking to cut down their game output next year. I thought they said that last year too.

The post that caught my eye this week was Larisa’s discussion about why she’s not doing anything special to prepare for Cataclysm. This in an environment where hardcore players probably have all the maps and quests planned out from various beta information already.

RPS have also, astoundingly, finally found a writer who likes WoW to write about it.

Pirates of the Burning Sea launches F2P

Ever wanted to be a pirate, sailing the spanish main? Well now you can do it without a monthly sub in PotBS, it’s a pretty game and a rather different setting to most other MMOs on the market. There’s also quite a sandbox economy/ PvP vibe alongside the quests and naval combat and most importantly, characters can have the best range of beards I think I’ve ever seen in a game. I liked the female customisation a lot also, the costumes are just that cool.

Jedi Wizard gets renamed

The unfortunately named Jedi Wizard class is being renamed to Jedi Sage in SWTOR, following an online poll.

They also have a developer blog up this week about crew skills and crafting in the game. One of the things I like is that they definitely have a notion of casual crafters vs hardcore crafters and that each type of player should be able to get something out of the system. So casual crafters should be able to fairly easily make gear that is on par (or slightly above) drops, but there will be better gear available to be crafted by players who want to put more time into it.

I’m rapidly thinking that the crafting in this game is looking like one of the big plus points. I’m also getting fonder of the graphics, it’s not fancy but it doesn’t need to be.

New vampire race for EQ2

Well, at least they aren’t vampire elves. Arkenor says what a lot of other people are thinking, which is wtf SOE? (I’m more puzzled that he thinks this is a step towards becoming more like WoW which wasn’t especially vamped out last time I checked.) Having said that, maybe people would like a bloodsucking race. It’s certainly been part of fantasy gaming since at least original D&D.

But if you do want one, hang in there because it’s being given as a reward  for people who remain subscribed between Dec and Feb. What we don’t know is how overpowered it will be compared to the other races – a usual tactic to ‘encourage’ players to want one.

Green Armadillo suspects it will show up in the cash shop as a buyable race sometime later.

Beta Watch: Rift and TF2

A couple of betas that we heard more about this week. Trion Worlds’ Rift has a beta weekend event this weekend. It sounds from the website to be a very classic WoW-like MMO but with some interesting twists and lore. It isn’t a typical fantasy setting and the races and background look quite fun.  It also looks very pretty in screenshots.  There’s an NDA up to stop beta testers talking about it too much but expect to hear more about this game as it nears launch. Might be one to watch if you preferred vanilla WoW to the current version.

The other game with some extra beta zing is Team Fortress 2, for which Valve have opened a public test server where you’ll be able to try some of the new patch changes and give feedback before they go live.

Tweaks to the LOTRO F2P setup

The December Producers’ letter for LOTRO explains some of the changes they have made recently, including removal of radiance and changes in some of the pricing. For example, Lonelands is now free to all players whereas at launch of F2P, you had to buy access to the quests in the zone.

There are also going to be cosmetic pets.

As a player, the main take home message for this is wait as long as you can before buying anything because prices are tending to go down and more content being made available for free the longer you wait.

And also, if you do buy something, do so because you want it at the time and try to be sanguine about the notion that prices are likely to change later on.

Gaming News: Halo Reach breaks sales records, APB is dead or is it, Pirates to go F2P, Activision to sell cut scene movies, Steam introduced new wallet

This week heralded the Tokyo Game Show, with more news about forthcoming Japanese games.

Stories from Tokyo that caught my eye were the announcement of Valkyria Chronicles 3, but not for the PS3. I think that’s a shame, the first game is a super RP tactical strategy game with a very different type of tactical strategy combat from games like Final Fantasy.

Never mind, the trailer of Studio Ghibli’s Ni No Kuni should keep PS3 RPG fans happy for now. (WANT!!)

And Phantasy Star Online 2 was also announced and due for the PC in 2011. I never played the original but I remember it had a huge cult following, so MMO fans might want to keep their ears peeled.

Microsoft also took the opportunity at their TGS conference to predict 3m sales of Kinect this Christmas and announce some Kinect exclusive games. More interestingly, they predict that there could be 5 years of life left in current gen consoles (admittedly they have a vested interest in encouraging people to buy them, but it may also be true.)

In WoW news, wow.com has changed its name back to WoW Insider and moved domains to wow.joystiq.com. They answer questions about the change here. But you have to wonder whether a domain name like wow.com will be allowed to rot in limbo.

Halo Reach breaks $200m in first day sales

Halo Reach has been breaking sales records, recording over $200m in sales in America and Europe on it’s first day. This actually makes it the biggest US entertainment release of the year, beating opening weekend sales for top blockbuster films as well as gaming releases. Amazingly, this still falls short of the Modern Warfare numbers last year. The game has been getting great reviews in the media, too.

And this is why we will always have AAA shooters.

The sad demise of APB

Realtime Worlds failed to find a buyer for APB as a going concern, and the servers closed down this week, about 80 days after launch. This is a record, as far as I know, for MMOs.

It isn’t clear what sort of legal rights any buyers have, although requests for refunds are being directed towards retailers. That’ll certainly make them keep to take more new MMOs in the future. There is a rumour that a buyer may have emerged for APB, but even if true that doesn’t mean they want to actually run the game. They may be more interested in the codebase.

Pirates of the Burning Sea announces switch to F2P

Flying Lab software have announced a change in charging scheme for their pirate themed MMO, Pirates of the Burning Sea. The producer comments in his post:

Finally, in the modern MMO environment, players often rotate through several games that they’re engaged in. With a subscription, it’s a hassle to cancel and then re-subscribe as they move back and forth between games. With F2P, players can play the games they want to play right that moment without having to keep in mind what they committed to weeks or months ago. F2P is a win for the player, and it’s a win for a more diverse MMO community.

I remember thinking that Pirates was a rather cool game when I tried it in beta, just I didn’t want to commit to subscriptions. And I think his point that players often rotate through different MMOs these days is a really interesting one. May add more thoughts about that this week, but the idea of finding an MMO to become your virtual home is probably looking old fashioned right now to a lot of players.

They haven’t announced a date for the switchover but fans of nautical combat and economic PvP might want to give this one another look. It’s very different in theme and style to other games out there, having more in common with EVE than with WoW.

Anyone want to pay for a collection of cut scenes? Activision says yes

Bobby Kotick is keen to monetize cut scenes. Although he was talking about selling them separately as a movie, I can’t help wondering whether they’d be keener to sell them as extras to existing games (which is probably a bonus if you hate cutscenes and never want to see them again.)

Speaking about these cutscenes, Kotick said: “If we were to take that hour, or hour and a half, take it out of the game, and we were to go to our audiences for whom we have their credit card information as well as a direct relationship and ask, ‘Would you like to have the StarCraft movie?’, my guess is that … you’d have the biggest opening weekend of any film ever.”

Does anyone else find it creepy when he reminds everyone that they have the credit card information from their audience (not to mention untrue because I don’t recall that you are forced to buy the game direct from Actiblizzard)?

My thought is that sure, you could have a fairly large opening weekend if it was CHEAP. No one who spend £45 on a video game is going to want to spend half again on the same cutscenes … are they?

Still, I could  imagine paying a fiver for a collection of nicely edited together cutscenes for a game I really liked. I enjoyed watching through the video collection of warcraft 2/3 clips showing Arthas’ story pre-WoW.

Speaking at the same conference, Kotick also claimed that Activision have no wish to charge online fees for CoD, or in-game ads at all. It is quite odd to hear him talking about showing respect for his customers, wonder what happened to the real Bobby Kotick.

New Steam wallet

Steam are planning to let you load your account up with cash, which will be available via prepaid cards (ie. if you want to give one as a gift or don’t have a credit card) as well as via credit card purchase or offer codes. They have chosen not to go with their own virtual currency.

This will be a boon to people who want to sock some cash away when they are feeling flush in order to get the most out of the infamous Steam sales later on.

They do note though:

Funds added to the Steam Wallet are non-refundable and non-transferable