[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.

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.

Peace on Earth and RMT to Games Companies

We are approaching the time of year when for many people in the western world, Christian or not, thoughts turn to charity. How can we use our hard earned money to help other people and make the world a better place?

Among the many good causes who’d like a slice of that pie, this week sees a couple more game companies throwing their hats into the ring. (I feel like it’s RMT week or something.)

Say you love her, buy her a minipet (on WoW)

There were a couple of big(ish) WoW news items that came up yesterday. People seem to be mostly ignoring the fact that you’ll soon be able to earn arena points from winning battlegrounds which is a pretty big climbdown on Blizzard’s part, in favour of the minipets added to the Blizzard shop.

So, for $10/£9 (this is an extortionate exchange rate for us, by the way) you can now buy yourself a funky minipet with special moves to add to your collection. Or, smartly, they have made it very easy to buy one as a gift for someone else who plays Warcraft. Is letting people buy minipets going to break the game? Nope. It’s not functionally all that different than giving them away with rare cards in the CCG. It is, however, another step towards a fully fledged item store. Maybe they just weren’t making enough money. I think they are smart enough to avoid selling items that will affect gameplay but the temptation to see if they could push their players just a little further is always going to be there.

It also raises questions along the lines of “How much is a minipet worth anyway?” For the price of both minipets you could snag yourself a copy of Torchlight, for example. The answer of course is that it’s worth whatever people are willing to pay and from forums I frequent, I see a lot of people enthusiastically buying the new pets either for themselves or for partners/friends. The pets themselves are undoubtedly high quality, as such things go, with their special emotes and animations.

They plan to add more pets to the shop as time goes on. I wonder if they’ll go as far as a ‘pet of the month’ club where you just increase your sub to cover the monthly minipet too. I suspect a lot of players would spring for that.

Free Realms not so free after all

Player vs Developer spotted an announcement buried deep in an interview about Free Realms about a shift in philosophy for that game also. Previously, a large part of the game was free to play. If you picked up a monthly sub you got access to more powerful and interesting classes to play, and access to extra quests and activities. In addition they had an item shop selling many of the usual suspects (pets, cosmetic items, potions, equipment).

In early November (ie. nowish, I guess) that’s all set to change. The game is now only free to play up to level 5 in any career, although that now includes the jobs which had previously been locked to subscribers. But if you want to keep playing after that, you have to subscribe. Naturally the cash shop will remain available. Pre-existing characters will still be allowed to level up to 20 on the previously free jobs.

I can only assume that they feel they’ll make more money from switching to a full subscription game. Maybe the free to play wasn’t working out as well as they’d hoped? (I suspect the issue is to do with targetting kids as their main audience, they’re just not a market with much disposable income to spend on cosmetic gear and pets.)

Why choose between subscriptions and RMT when you can have both?

What both of these announcements have in common is that they show that the big western AAA MMOs are playing around with different payment methods and seem to be settling on the one which is least advantageous to players.

To whit: they’re going with a mandatory subscription, possibly a mandatory box sale for the initial game and expansions, and also throwing in an item store.

We’ve seen it in Champions Online, we’ve seen it in EQ2, we’ve seen it in WoW (they’re just more explicitly selling cosmetic items now), and if the model sticks, they probably won’t be the last ones down the line.

It’s widely held that some of the indie games have more favourable RMT schemes, such as Wizard 101 and Puzzle Pirates. Ultimately, I think they’re going to be the outliers though. STO is likely to use a similar scheme to Champions given that it’s coming from the same company. And who knows yet what Bioware will decide to do with their Star Wars game?

And that leaves Dungeons and Dragons Online, where the free to play model seems so far to be working for them very well (unless you’re in Europe). So well, in fact, that they’ve just opened another server. Have they just monetized better by charging for instances? Will anyone else follow their lead?