Subscriptions level in WoW, and Ensidia have their eyes on The Old Republic

Earlier this week Activision-Blizzard reported their financial results for 2009, a business related press release in which gaming companies traditionally discuss how their recent offerings have fared in the market, and what’s due to be released in the next year.

Blizzard related points of interest:

  • Cataclysm is on track for a 2010 release
  • So is Starcraft 2
  • Current subscription numbers for World of Warcraft are holding steady at 11.5 million – the same number they mentioned in July last year
  • And apparently only 30% of new WoW players make it past level 10

The subscriber numbers is an interesting one, and underlines even further why Cataclysm is being targeted at new players and returners. The game just isn’t growing any more. On the other hand, there are many subscription MMOs which would have been thrilled to have maintained subscriber numbers from year on year. Could it be that many of the people who might have previously tried WoW have been lured away from MMOs altogether by the casual gaming sector?

Also, every player who has made it past level 10 may now feel like part of an elite force. You are the 3/10 who stuck with it. I think the 30% is misleading only because it implies that other MMOs are stickier; I suspect similar figures would be true of most free trials. In fact, I’ve always wondered how many of EVE’s increasing subscriber numbers is actually due to new players as opposed to old ones with multiple accounts (just picking on EVE because it’s notoriously unfriendly to newbies, especially if most of them can’t handle WoW!)

It won’t surprise anyone who has ever tried to help a friend who is a genuine newbie, but MMOs can be complex and overwhelming to new players. Even one that seems simple to experienced players. Gordon@We Fly Spitfires has written a few blog posts about his experience of playing with his brother, who is a genuine noob.

Mike Morhaine even commented that one of the aims of Cataclysm was to make the low level experience more compelling, to lure more of those newbies into staying. This makes me even more curious to see what they have in mind for levels 1-10. Can it be a good tutorial for genuine newbies and still fun for the old time players?

My big question though is if players who try a new MMO for a month and then go back to Warcraft are WoW tourists, what do you call a player who tries WoW and then goes back to … I dunno what really … Farmville? Should we call them Farmville tourists?

Ensidia eye up the dark side

Peace is a lie; there is only passion.
Through passion, I gain strength.
Through strength, I gain power.
Through power, I gain victory.
Through victory, my chains are broken.
The Force shall free me.
—The Sith Code

This was one of the more unexpected links in my RSS reader this morning. Darth Hater, one of the big SWTOR blogs, scored an interview with a couple of the Ensidia officers who chat about raiding, difficulty in games, and why they are looking forwards to Star Wars: The Old Republic.

Now, nothing I have read about that game pegs it as a game designed to appeal to the WoW hardcore raiders. But everyone is entitled to live in hope.

In fact, SWTOR fans will have to live in hope, because EA announced in their own financial report that the game won’t be out before Q2 2011.

Darth Dafydd and the fully voiced trailer

If you haven’t seen it yet, the latest trailer for Star Wars: The Old Republic is a video documentary showing off the voice-overs and how they’re recorded.

It looks and sounds fantastic, I’m sold. Even the wacky part where the director asks the actor to do “Darth Maul, but Welsh” hasn’t yet deterred me from the game. In fact, it’s a tribute to the pulling power of the video that it’s only afterwards that you stop to think ‘Wait, isn’t that kind of dumb?’ – might as well get Dave Prowse to do the voices and have done with it.

I’m also now sold on the idea of having a fully voiced game. Even in the video you can see how immersive the soundscape can be, and maybe since I’m playing through Mass Effect at the moment I’m inclined to want more of the same. Sure, there are issues with this. How will the game play for deaf players? Will you be able to skip the sound files if you want to play through again on an alt? But those are soluble. Less easy will be the issue of whether they translate it for foreign markets – if not, then this game may be for English speakers only and that cuts down the potential audience right from the start.

But what I haven’t seen yet from the SW:TOR team is any compelling reason they decided to make their game an MMO. What is it that really comes alive when you have massive amounts of players in the same gameworld? WAR, Darkfall, and Aion sold us on the huge PvP battles. That might work here too, although I’m not sure I see it as a big PvP game. Will there be massed space battles (because that’s probably what players want) or will we have to go to Jumpgate: Evolution or EVE for that? Maybe there will be a complex, fully functional economy – that needs lots of players to really make it sing. Or raids perhaps?

So far I feel as though I’m being sold SW:TOR as a single player/ small group game. Which is fine, but doesn’t answer why it’s being created as a MMO.

But maybe the clue is in the welsh accent. Competitive multiplayer sheepdog trials? That must be it!

Space, The Final Frontier

Space is big. Really big. Also it’s black which makes it easy to render on archaic PCs. This does make me wonder why there aren’t more sci-fi/space opera style MMOs.

Aside from EVE, which  intrigues me but has been described as a spreadsheet in space with the learning curve from hell, there is not a vast amount of choice. Fortunately for space nuts, there are games in the works to fill the gaps.

Jumpgate Evolution

NetDevil’s dog-fighting twitch based combat MMO is due to be released later this year. Jumpgate Evolution is a game that knows exactly what it wants to be. And what it wants to be sounds very like Elite, so I’m sold on it already.

Here’s the feature list. You’ll be playing a pilot and flying around in space (duh) where you can dogfight, trade, explore a huge universe and take part in what they describe as a player driven world/ economy.

They describe their unique mission generator which sounds as though it’ll be able to generate random PvE type missions for you also. Hopefully this means you’ll be able to get CoH-style missions that are scaled for the number of people in your group.

It also supports huge space battles and runs on a toaster. And just as in EVE, there aren’t really different classes for players, but there are different classes of ships that you can learn to fly. And yes you can slam your ship into other structures if you really want to.

The only niggle in the back of my mind is that they mention twitch-based gaming about seven zillion times in their FAQ. That’s something I’ll need to try for myself before I can decide.

If you’re intrigued, you can go sign up for the beta now. Although there’s no solid release date, it is due for later this year.

Star Trek Online

As well as working on Champions Online, Cryptic have a Star Trek game in the works. We don’t have any solid dates for this yet but it will be out after CO, and probably not this year.

In this game, you’ll be playing the pilot of your own starship. You will be able to pick one of several different types of ship to fly, and can choose if you want to be a member of the Federation or the Kingon Empire/ Alliance. You’ll be able to select and train your own bridge crew (that’s NPCs of course, good luck training other players) and go on a variety of space based and planet based missions. Plus PvP with the other faction.

Coming from the same team who brought us City of Heroes, it’s no surprise that they’re big on character and ship customisation. You’ll be able to design your own race, and there will be lots of options to pimp out your ship.

Space combat is described as more tactical than twitch based. You’ll have to move your shields around as needed and pay attention to your positioning. Planet side combat has been described as needing you to move around more, and being faster paced than WoW. Since WoW PvP combat can be extremely fast paced, this again is something we’ll have to wait and see for ourselves.

One of the intriguing things about the Star Trek Universe is the economy. Fans have been arguing for decades about how an economy might work in a gameworld where just about anything you want can be created in a replicator. The fanwank explanation is that some things can’t be replicated and these scarce resources drive the economy.

Cryptic comment in a recent chat with IGN Vault readers that there will be an Auction House and there will be items that you need to get for your starship (dilithium crystals, anyone?).

My other personal issue with the Federation  is that when I was an undergrad, we played a few pen and paper sessions of the RPG and my character got court martialled. I liked that character! She was from New York and since the only thing that I can say in a NY accent is ‘Get me a coffee’ she drank a lot of coffee. Comparing notes with my husband, he comments that people got court martialled a lot in his games too. It seems to have happened any time anyone did something interesting.

The Federation is obviously a repressive fascist organisation that strives to extinguish any spark of individuality or creativity in its members. It must be stopped! Also Klingons look a bit like orcs and Klingon women are well ‘ard. So that’s my faction picked :)

There’s also a great blog writeup from one of their writers on mmorpg.com who discusses how writing missions for STO is a very different proposition from writing fanfic. As a writer, I thought this was a very interesting read.

So if you’re looking to play space opera but in a less twitch based cut-throat PvP setting than Jumpgate Evolution, this is one to keep an eye on.

If you can actually name your own ship, I’m sold.

Star Wars: The Old Republic

Star Wars is Bioware’s much vaunted WoW-beater. It’s going to be big and shiny, and is described in the FAQ as  ‘a new approach to online entertainment.’

This is a game which is rather further out in development than Jumpgate or Star Trek, so we have less information about exactly what they plan to do. Bioware recently revealed one class, the Bounty Hunter, and noted that each class is faction based. So all Bounty Hunters will be Sith (although that doesn’t mean that they are all dark side). There will definitely also be Jedis. And we’ll just have to wait for more detail as and when they are ready to spin up the hype machine and tell us about it!

Bioware are very big on immersion and on story driven plotlines and are planning to have a lot of class-based storylines available. And throughout the game, you’ll be faced with choices that could send you towards either the light side or the dark side.

I think the game will be fantastic, but we just don’t know yet what kind of gameplay they are aiming for.  However, if you enjoy questing and single player RPGs, this could be the game that plans to deliver. I don’t mean that it is single player, it isn’t, but they are looking to provide lots of content for soloers.

As Syp comments, one big problem that they face is that most people associate Star Wars with the films. The Old Republic is a very different setting, and it’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. It simply isn’t an IP which is as widely known and recognised.

One to keep an eye out for. To be honest, as the game gets closer to release, I think it will be well nigh impossible to avoid.