Why CoD Elite is great for gamers

Amidst all the complaints of cash grabbing and random exploitation of gamers levelled at Activision after the announcement of the CoD Elite subscription service, I wonder if anyone else thinks it’s a smart idea for what  could be a pretty good service.

I really like the idea of being easily able to find players who share similar interests. Don’t hate me! I just think it would be kind of fun to be able to run a battleground with other players who are fans of The Game of Thrones and discuss what’s likely to happen to Sansa and Arya in between rounds of PvP. Or easily find players who are from the same area so that we could get together for meetups more easily if we all get on.

One of the big unsolved problems in MMOs has always been how to find a good guild. Achievement-heads have gotten around this by defining a good guild as one where they can get lots of achievements, and then flocking to websites where guilds are defined by their achievement scores/ progression. More social players make contact with each other by chatting, by targeted ‘adverts’ on bboards and by getting recommendations from their friends. But there is always an element of luck involved.

But what if it was just easier to hook up with a bunch of fellow gamers who share similar interests/ location/ age/ criteria of your choice? What if it was easier to set up tournaments and events in the game just for your friend list?

The challenge of building a social network layer onto games isn’t a new one. Steam has an implementation, Blizzard toyed with Facebook associations before an outcry from players closed down that idea (incidentally, Facebook would have been free, anything they decide to implement for battle.net might not), various startups like raptr and xfire have experimented with these ideas as well.

But none of them have been as well integrated into a specific game as CoD Elite will be.

The first step with introducting a new paid service is to plan out a service that people will want to use. I think that Activision have hit this one for six, it could improve the game experience for a lot of current fans. The second step is to get them to actually pay – and in a world where other social networks tend to be free, that may be a harder sell.

And yet, those ‘free’ social networks are supported by advertising, by marketing demands which are tilted in favour of the bottom line and not of the users. Perhaps a pay-for social network which really is designed purely to serve the users’ needs isn’t a step we should be shying away from.

At the end of the day, you pays your money and you takes your choice. I commented recently that the way I’d prefer MMOs to earn more money from players is to offer more services and goods outside the game itself. I’d much rather pay for access to a cool social network than for cash shop goods and xp potions …

Call of Duty to get a subscription option

What is this I don’t even …?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thought of the Day: What should you expect from an SOE sub?

The big MMO launch this week was DC Universe Online, now available on both PC and PS3 (anyone tried the console version?). Unsubject posts a thoughtful look at some of the plus and minus points of the launch.

Intriguingly, in an interview with Eurogamer (which is a worthwhile read for anyone interested in the game who wants to know more about it), John Smedley commented with respect to subscriptions:

“Just like the PC gamers, once they see the amount and level of content they’re getting compared to a normal game with bits and pieces of DLC, they’re going appreciate this a lot more.”

So while the rest of the MMO industry is following a trend of PC games morphing towards F2P payment models, SOE is trying to persuade console gamers that subscriptions are best.  Which is fine, but I think that claiming that console gamers should learn from what PC gamers want may be the wrong argument for that model.

And as for:

The monthly subscription fee means players can expect a lot of new content from us. And I say a lot — I really mean that. This is something that we feel obligated to the players, because they are paying monthly sub fee

… I wonder how players of SOEs other subscription games feel about that.

Cheap LOTRO Lifetime Subscriptions! But what does it mean?

Codemasters surprised us this afternoon by announcing a special offer on LOTRO lifetime subscriptions. This week, you can buy a lifetime sub to the game for £75 (that’s around half the normal price, I think).

It could be a clever promotion to encourage players like me who have dipped in and out of the game since it went live to finally take the plunge. And at that price, I have no hesitation about picking up a lifetime subscription myself.

Or does it herald a change in direction at Turbine? A move to more paid-for content patches and item shop together with a cheaper lifetime offer might be the new scheme. Or maybe if Turbine are shifting resources to a new game (say .. Harry Potter based maybe, since they’ve just been bought out by Time Warner) and plan to ease up on the LOTRO content, it would be time to charge less for the lifetimers.

In any case, it’s a good game with plenty to see and do, especially for Tolkien fans. And although no one knows what the future holds, it’s as good an offer as you are likely to get for the lifetime subscription.

Perks for the Old Timers

Star Trek Online recently announced a slew of perks for lifetime subscribers.  Cryptic liked the idea so much that they offered similar perks to Champions Online players as well.

Customers who are dedicated to being with either of these games for the long run get a special chat channel, VIP lounge in game, title, costume piece, and the ability to skip to the front of the queue any time the game has login queues.

I’m not a lifetime sub holder for either of those games, but I think it’s a great idea. After all, the lifetime players are potentially the core of the player base. They are the people who liked the game so much that they put up a lifetime sub up front, which is a kind of pledge to say that they are interested in seeing how it develops and will be inclined to keep dropping in. If you are a committed player, one of your big issues up front is knowing that so many of the people you meet when the game is new will not still be there in a month or two’s time.

It’s very easy to put a lot of energy into forming guilds, making friends, laying down foundations for long term game relationships and then find … that your guild and group of friends has vaporised. So having a chat channel and meeting room for other players who are in for the long term can at least offer the option to hang out with other people who are less likely to just vanish.

City of Heroes took another approach. They offered  account rewards to players who had subscribed for different amounts of time. On your characters three-month/six-month/etc birthday, the new item would appear, as if it was a kind of gift. Here’s the list of CoH veteran rewards – they include titles, pets, costume pieces, wings… and towards the longer end of the spectrum, extra abilities and perks are also included.

I’ve always been dubious of this scheme because I see how keen my husband is to keep his sub active even when he isn’t really playing much CoH, and it’s because he’s keen not to lose any possible future veteran rewards. But it doubtless works well for NCSoft.

(Note: I have nothing against gambling. I just don’t see the point in paying a sub for a game you don’t play. If these perks could be bought from the cash shop, I’d think nothing of it.)

EVE Online is notorious for its real time training system, which means that a new player will never have as many abilities as an older one. They cannot catch up. A new player can still be effective, they just won’t have the wide range of skills to choose from. So in a sense, flexibility is the EVE veteran reward. And after a point, either CCP start to put in new abilities (where everyone starts to train at the same time) or else diminishing returns means that the effect isn’t very marked in most situations.

Old vs New, Lifetime vs Sub

As I play LOTRO, I wonder if the player community is fragmented between lifetime subscribers and regular subscribers. The lifetime group know that they all will probably keep coming back, although they may also take long breaks, whereas regular subs might get bored and decide to quit at any time.

Lifetimers, because they’re more committed, are also more likely to pursue some of the grindier endgame options. They’re more likely to have maxed out crafting, more likely to have several alts, more likely to be raiding. I know that if I need crafting done, it’s likely to be one of the lifetime players who I will ask, because they have the maxed out skills.

Of course, there will also be lifetime players who later went off the game. Maybe they felt they got their moneys worth and lost interest, or maybe they just took a long break, forgot to come back, and then felt it wasn’t worth the effort. But you won’t generally meet them in game (because they aren’t there!)

I’m not entirely sure what they think of transient me. Even my recent three month stint is probably a drop in the ocean to lifetime players, who think more in terms of years than of months. (It’s kind of like being a hobbit in amongst the elves!) This is not to say that they aren’t all very nice, they are. But I like the sense that the community has different depths, and that there’s a place for different levels of commitment to the game.

What is a good veteran reward?

It is generally assumed in MMOs that the more time you put in, the more your character will progress. So there’s always been a vague notion that people who have played longer and put in more hours deserve to have better characters.

Unfortunately, if this was actually true, it would be difficult to attract new players. It’s not impossible; a design like EVEs which rewards old timers with more flexibility still leaves room for a newbie to play alongside the rest of the playerbase.

So the best of the veteran rewards compensate the vets for the fact that they are not actually immortal demigods compared to newer players, and for the fact that endgame is often reset with each expansion.

Probably the best ever veteran rewards came with MUDs, which allowed longterm players to become imps (implementors) and help create new areas and quests in the game. Others included new veteran classes, that could only be started if you had one character at max level (Death Knights in WoW are a similar type of reward).

But it is an interesting and ongoing issue. MMO Devs would like to reward longterm players, if only because it encourages people to keep playing. (This is irrespective of whether the game is paid by subs or a cash shop.) But they have to find a way to do it that won’t put off the new blood which they also so desperately need.

In that context, I think Cryptic has done a good job with their lifetime rewards. Time will tell.

What do you expect to get for your monthly subscription?

It’s hard to put a value on content, but the expectations of the MMO community have changed over the past few years. Whereas once, access to the virtual world with all its trappings was considered worth the price of entry, we now expect a stream of additional content patches to justify the monthly fees.

Or do we?

Champions Online has put the cat among the pigeons by announcing a paid mega-adventure pack, Vibora Bay,  (sounds similar to the sorts of big content patches we get in WoW). The player base is less than thrilled. There’s a sense that this business model is fine in a free to play game like DDO where you expect to pay for extra content, but a lot of players expect that a monthly sub should include this type of thing.

Perhaps it is time for MMO publishers to be more up front about exactly what you do get for your monthly fee, because games that do include content patches are definitely looking like better value.  And when you can pick up a cool little game like Psychonauts for £1 off Steam in the sale (last day: today), just how much should you expect anyway for your £10 pcm?