[Links] Gaming news: Sony due to reveal next gen playstation in Feb, Hartsman leaves Trion, gPotato gets sold to company with less daft name

My aim with the links posts this year is to separate out gaming news (which I’ll post about once a month) from links to other gaming blogs or links that caught my eye. So this is a news focussed post, with some blog posts to illustrate how bloggers have reacted to some of the games/news! Feel free to send or tweet me links to interesting gaming related news for inclusion in future posts.

playstation

seanmasn @ flickr

The biggest gaming news of January is that Sony are implying that they are going to reveal the next Playstation on February 20th. This is big for obvious reasons, we’re at the end of a console cycle and games companies turning in poor figures have been blaming them on the console cycle for most of last year. There have also been rumours that Microsoft also plan to announce their next generation console  this year, so expect to see a lot of gaming press on the issue.

Sony posted a trailer on their blog which ended with the date: February 20th, 2013. The Wall Street Journal discusses the new console in context of the ailing video game market (I hesitate to say ailing, maybe changing would be closer to the truth.)

Gala Net (aka gPotato portals), publishers of Allods amongst other F2P titles, has been bought by Webzen, another F2P publisher. Take this as another date point on the “maybe F2P isn’t the answer for MMOs” graph. It seems from the financials that Gala Net had been well into the red for all of last year.

Wizardry Online, a new F2P MMO noted largely for a hardcore death penalty, released this month. When you are marketing your game as “the most hardcore fantasy MMO ever created”, it is a fair bet that you are aiming at a fairly specific audience. Still, Dark Souls sold well on a “this game is really hard and unforgiving” tagline so  the players are out there. Stropp gives his first impressions of the game:

The game promises a hardcore level of difficulty, and yep it is hard. Nearly every modern MMORPG tries to insulate its new and low level players from death. You’d have to be playing pretty badly to die to a mob under level 20 in WoW, even a mob 2 levels above player level. In WO, I died a few times early on.

Brian Reynolds resigned from Zynga, where he held the post of Chief Game Designer. It’s another very high profile flight from Zynga, which has been bleeding senior executives over the last few months. He wrote a blog post for GamesBeat talking about the decision to leave and what he plans to do next. And it sounds as though what he plans to do next involves starting a new game studio, this could be very good news indeed for strategy fans (as long as they don’t hold shares in Zynga).

I want to experiment more than might be appropriate for a publicly traded company, and I might want to do something that would be “off strategy” for Zynga or otherwise too risky. ((…))  I suspect that “starting a little studio with a few wingmen” — for the fourth time in my career — is likely to be on the menu.

CCP is working hard on getting Dust 514 ready for release. The game, which will be F2P for PS3 only,  is in beta at the moment. MMO Melting Pot sums up some bloggers’ thoughts on the beta and none of the people they quote actually like the game or seemed inclined to want to play it on release. That could be really bad news for CCP, these are people who were already invested in the genre and probably also play EVE and have Playstations: ie. their target audience. Stabs has some nicer things to say about the game. I predict that we’ll get to know how Dust is faring in the market by how keen CCP is to add more cash spending ‘opportunities’ to their cashcow, EVE later in the year.

Scott Hartsman announced that he is leaving Trion Worlds, where he has been the executive producer on Rift. I think this came as a surprise to observers and players, especially as the influence he has had on Rift has been so widely praised. Two questions left to answer are “How will this affect Rift?” and “What is Hartsman planning to do next?” Rift bloggers ponder whether his departure clears the way for a transition to F2P for the game, although the devs haven’t made any formal announcements to that end. I also wonder quite how financially successful Rift has actually been with its current model, a lot of bloggers have been keen to give it as an example that subscriptions can still work in the current market. But what if the financials aren’t actually in that great a shape?

Trion also have their hands full with releasing ArcheAge (F2P fantasy MMO) later this year, and Warface (a F2P MMOish shooter) as well. Not to mention Defiance (multi platform shooter MMO, that will tie in with a Syfy TV series).

Jay Wilson (Diablo 3 lead designer) has moved on to another role within Blizzard. Posters on the official forum have been so arsey about the poor guy that Rob Pardo commented on the thread, defending him. I quite enjoyed Diablo 3 and have no regrets about buying and playing, it’s not going to be my go-to game for the next three years (in fact I dunno if it will be my go-to game ever) but I’m interested enough to pick up the inevitable expansion at some point. Wilson is very low down on the list of game designers I’d like to have a quiet word with. Tipa has had at least 230 hours of entertainment from the game and it sounds as though she isn’t done yet.

Even though we played this game for half a year, it didn’t overstay its welcome. It’s time to move on while we’re still having fun with the game. I don’t think it will be leaving any of our hard drives any time soon.

Gas Powered games set off a new kickstarter for Wildman, an action RPG and then announced a few days later that they were sacking most of their development team in a round of layoffs, leaving people to wonder exactly who was going to make this new game if it did get funded. Unsubject, as usual, does a great evidence based takedown of Gas Powered, and notes that the state of the company’s financies is the sort of risk that investors should have been told about in advance. I doubt the game is going to reach its target, but it’s worth noting as an example to kickstarter funders of caveat emptor.

Leigh Alexander writes about the kickstarter fad for gaming, and wonders whether letting your fans be your publisher is a good idea. She has a point, we know how ‘reasonable’ fans can be when a game doesn’t meet their expectations.

Curt Schilling is selling one of his socks to raise funds to pay debts owing due to the failure of Amalur. Apparently it’s expected to fetch at least $100k. Who knows what he might have earned if he’d sold the other one too.

Bioware announced that planet Makeb, star of the next paid DLC for SWTOR  (I hesitate to say expansion) will feature same sex relationships. Naturally the non-gaming media siezed on this to report on the gay planet. Whilst it would be way preferable to adjust all the existing in game content to include same sex relationships, it’s easy enough to see that this is a) a cheaper way and b) probably technically easier than altering all the existing romances to include same sex options. I understand the criticisms but if it’s this or nothing, surely this is better.

Anna Anthropy also released an adventure called Hunt for the Gay Planet as a commentary. It’s probably NSFW.

Tera, a MMO known mainly for the decent combat and lasciviously clad characters, has gone F2P – it’s nine months after launch, if anyone is counting. j3w3l argues the case for why you should give it a go. Keen has some issues with the spin on their announcement (but really, can you imagine a dev ever saying “we’re going F2P because we suck”?)

Obviously they have to somehow make the best out of a situation where they change or die.  Just don’t believe for a second that they’re changing because things are going really well for them.

zomboobies

Racing ahead of the pack for “most tasteless special edition of the year” are Deep Silver for the bloodied female torso (with perky boobs) model they are giving away with preorders for Dead Island Riptide.  Conveniently Placed Exhaust Port is not impressed (nor is anyone else, to be honest, even people who like schlock horror.) I’m not even going to start on the sexism angle.

What Deep Silver has done here goes far beyond just creating something horrible. Lots of people have done that (there’s a sequel to The Human Centipede.) I’m sure somewhere out there is an entire line of photo-realistic busts of bloody nude torsos that enthusiasts of such things can fawn over. No, what Deep Silver has done is so much worse. It made such a thing and then, with a wink and a nudge, said “Dude, you’d love this.”

In which EA does a good deed

It hasn’t been a good week for Zynga, what with their stock going through the floor, their veteran COO (chief operations officer) having been ‘restructured’ away from creative duties, and now they’ve been hit by a lawsuit from Electronic Arts around copyright infringement.

I predict EA will win this case, if it gets as far as court. The formal complaint document is very thorough, very readable, and pretty much sums up every accusation everyone has ever made about Zynga and copying games, as well as specific claims about how The Ville ripped off Sims Social, including poaching EA executives who had inside information about the game pre-launch.

There is one thing you need to know about patent suits. (This is also true of other lawsuits but sometimes people do it anyway to make a point.)

1. There is no point pursuing a defendent who doesn’t have much money with which to pay large fines.

Zynga is now a large public company. They have assets. That makes them worth suing. EA has genuine commercial interest in protecting The Sims, one of their tentpole IPs, and they’ve clearly decided to make some solid PR out of the whole affair.

Much as EA garners a lot of hate from gamers – they are after all an investment company whose main goals are to monetise their games into the ground – I always felt that Riccitello was speaking from the heart when he talked about promoting new IPs, even if he does close studios down swiftly when they underperform. They have also shown some desire to foster the independent gaming ecosphere, some of which fell wide of the mark, and others may have shown genuine appreciation for crowd sourcing and indie developers who can grow their own fanbase.

So yeah, I think this is a positive development and I wouldn’t be too quick to cry doom or foresee EA and Activision suing all and sundry for games with similar looks and feels if this is successful. Zynga will deserve what comes from this. Indie and social gaming devs will only benefit from the protection against having their ideas stolen by more unscrupulous dev houses.

Nimblebit (the devs who made Tiny Towers, which Zynga then notoriously ripped off) seem to agree.

[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.

[Links] May the links be with you

Oo, it’s been ages since I wrote a links post. Let’s see what’s in the can.

For the record, I’m still enjoying SWTOR and will write a post about my experiences in the endgame sometime next week. While both Stabs and Richard Bartle comment on how unusual it feels in an MMO for the levelling part to actually feature an ending, they come to different conclusions on whether or not this works.

I’ll note only that I think the original endgame-ish model borrowed a lot from original D&D in which it was assumed the game would turn into more of a simulation/ sandbox/ war game after your character reached the dizzying heights of level 10 or so and there were originally rules for what types of settlements/ strongholds each class would build and what types of followers might be attracted to them. Bear this in mind: the MMO model was based on a game where levelling was an RPG and endgame was sandbox. This accounts for a lot of the confusion for both players and designers I think.

For what it’s worth, I subbed for 6 months. I am in fact in the habit of always taking out a 6 month sub for a new MMO that I really liked in beta/ opening month. It’s one of the ways I try to support my hobby, plus I get to explore the game without feeling rushed. Will I be in for the full 6 months? That gentle readers is a future we’ll explore together ;P

I don’t really have a good list of SWTOR blogs; if you know any good ones or want to advertise your own, feel free to mention them in comments. One SWTOR post that did catch my eye was Calli’s post on Dude, Where’s My Bantha about some patterns and issues she’s (edited: HE I mean. Sorry Calli!) noticed with the republic-side romances. Food for thought!

It’s almost as if Bioware think that everyone playing The Old Republic fantasises about being the kind of tough, strong and ruggedly handsome man that damsels in distress everywhere need to shelter them from all the ugly in the world.

I recommend Imperial Agent, a good dose of Kaliyo will clear away any of those sorts of thoughts.

What’s buzzing round the blogosphere?

Kingdoms of Amalur is released next week, and here are Tipa’s thoughts on the demo. I did briefly try the demo on the PS3 and my thoughts mostly can be summed up as “combat looks as though it’s going to be fun and engaging, the world and story didn’t really grab me.” So if you want an open world fantasy type game with engaging combat, roll a coin. If it’s heads get Amalur, tails get Final Fantasy 13-2. (I’m still looking forwards to Dragon’s Dogma, though.)

Zubon doesn’t like games that have achievements that can only be completed at certain points in the game, so if you miss the right time, you can’t go back later and do it. Good discussion in comments here between people like me who think achievements are just a bit of fluff and fun and not to be taken too seriously, and more achiever/ completionist players.

Keen talks about sandbox games, and particularly some of the design notes that Goblinworks have been putting out about their upcoming (although probably not any time soon) Pathfinder fantasy sandbox game. They’ve been discussing links between PvP, trading/ economy, and resources/ building in a sandbox world. There is more to sandboxes than just giant economic-war simulations though, and it would be nice to see sandbox games experiment more with the sorts of social challenges that featured in Tale in the Desert. Or anything that would encourage players to build working in game communities rather than always be focussed on in-game profit and achievements.

Brian at wasdstomp gaming wonders why in F2P games, he always buys a bundle of points just before he gets bored of the game, so ends up not spending them.

F2P games have been in the news again, with Star Trek Online and SOE announcing that Everquest will be taking the plunge in March. Aion is due to go F2P soonish (in the EU at least), and Rift now offers the first 20 levels free. Anyone planning on taking up any of those? Everquest F2P hold any interest for anyone who didn’t fancy it before?

Scott Andrews at WoW Insider discusses the current (dying) state of 25 man raid guilds in WoW. Syl at Raging Monkeys has a thoughtful look at social control in MMOs and how WoW players have been getting streamlined over the years into small groups of similar ability.

I don’t wish to be in a guild where every person is exactly like me <…> Nor do I mind slower learners or players who simply fail at the odd mechanic <…>  – as long as you can compensate for them somehow during specific encounters.

Zynga has been in the news recently following accusations that they cloned/ copied another game (Tiny Tower). This wouldn’t be the first time for Zynga, whose big hit Farmville was also ‘strongly inspired’ by another similar game. Brian Reynolds (Zynga’s head of design) discusses copycats and cloning on Gamasutra, but only if they don’t ask about Tiny Tower :) Tadhg at What Games Are shares his thoughts on how you can tell if a game is a clone, and what to do about it (if you are the designer of the cloned game.)

Sente reflects on how difficult it can be to remember how to play a game if you return after a few months, and wonders what MMO devs in particular could do to help.

All aboard the monetization train – pay for levels, ads in games

Just when you thought it was safe to step out of your computer room, a couple more companies are experimenting with additional ways to get their paws on your hard earned moolah.

Buying levels in WAR

Arkenor covers the new Warhammer Online account entitlement purchasing service –- a cash shop by any other name. As well as the (now usual) server transfers, vanity pet, shiny cosmetic trinkets for your armour and mounts, they are also selling a ‘specialised training pack’ which grants one level to all of your characters.

Naturally this has the blogosphere up in arms, but I wonder if selling a single level for an inflated price is really such a game breaking issue. I remember many times when playing DaoC wishing I had the option to pay to jump ahead a level or two, particularly if I’d hit a hell level or was just tired of the final stretch of the level grind.

The fact that players even adopted the name ‘hell levels’ for levels that seem unusually difficult to pass during the levelling phase of the game  shows how common a phenomenon it was in older games.

Obviously we like to think that slicker design solved the hell level problem in modern MMOs, but does it matter if someone is desperate to pay to level up?

Hadrune argues that none of the new WAR cash shop items are gamebreakers, and feels that they are all optional.

To my mind, the proof of this particular pudding will come not when cash shops are added to sub games, but in how game design changes in future to make better use of them. Maybe adding the facility to buy a level is not a great solution to the hell level problem, but it’s far worse if hell levels are deliberately designed into the game to entice people to buy.

That’s the slippery slope argument. And it hasn’t happened yet.

Zynga takes in game advertising

Zynga, as we know, has no qualms about maintaining the purity of the gaming environment, and what could be more immersive than finding an advert for Megamind inside your Farmville?

Gamasutra notes that their current partnership with DreamWorks isn’t the first advertising promotion that they have run. Presumably it’s another good source of income for them so expect more in the future. And there’s no mention of allowing players to pay to avoid the ads.

I would argue that Zynga’s route is likely to prove far more ruinous for MMOs than WARs. Buying your way past a hell level isn’t in the same league as encouraging all your players to dismiss the idea that immersion in a virtual world has any value at all, or is something they might miss when it’s gone.

Gaming News: Champions Online goes F2P, LOTRO EU F2P dated, Biggest ever online battle in EVE, Zynga aims to patent virtual currency, is Zynga worth more than EA?

The rise of the F2P MMO has given our gaming culture a new way to celebrate Halloween. As well as the inevitable (and inescapable) “Halloween holiday quests” there’s also now a Halloween sale, probably featuring skimpy costumes for female characters. Welcome to the future, where there’s some kind of sale on in the cash shop for 364 days of the year.

One of the blog posts which caught my eye this week was Larisa’s disappointment with the new worgen female dance – released this week onto the Cataclysm beta servers. It’s a copy of Lady Gaga’s dance from Pokerface (yeah, I wouldn’t have known that either and I quite like Lady Gaga).

The first thing I thought on seeing that video was what an amazing job the animation team did with that dance animation. It’s pretty much perfect.

It’s also a really poor fit for the worgen theme and  — even worse – has none of the charm which so amused people about the original WoW racial dances. Say what you like about silly pop culture references but it’s still comedy gold to see an orc dude do the MC Hammer dance, or the human female dance the Macarena. What happened to the lols, Blizzard? Blood elves dancing like Britney Spears was still vaguely funny because belves have a blonde airhead theme. But worgen dancing like Lady Gaga? Not really getting it.

Ah well, Alliance sucks anyway. Here’s a video of a goblin girl doing Beyonce’s Single Ladies dance.

Champions Online joins the Free to Play party

The big MMO news of the week is that another AAA subscription based MMO is switching to a F2P pricing model. This time it’s Cryptic’s Champions Online which is taking the plunge.

The news has been met with the usual round of commentary on the future of the genre, and guesses as to which game might be next. Truth is, with every AAA game that switches payment models, that future comes just a little bit closer. And no matter how many games do successfully switch over (and we hope that they’re all successful!), this is still not really proving anything yet about the types of communities that a F2P game can engage over time.

Pick of the week for me on the commentary was MMO Gamer Chick’s thoughts on what this means for lifetime subscriptions.

I’m still keeping an eye on Pirates of the Burning Sea which is due to switch to F2P sometime ‘soon’.

LOTRO EU gets a date for F2P

On a similar topic, European LOTRO players can rejoice. The F2P patch, alongside the new zone of Enedwaith and the harvest festival (better late than never), is going live this week.

Hurrah! Well, hurrah for new content and new players at least.

Biggest battle ever in an MMO?

It’s a tribute to whatever CCP have done with the EVE servers that they held out during a massive battle involving several thousand players.

Massively note that lag set in at around the 2400 player mark, and presumably the thing played like a slideshow when all 3100+ were there. But like a singing dog, the amazing thing is not that it sings out of tune but that it sings at all.

Anyone involved in that battle? It sounds like quite a remarkable experience.

Zynga and more Zynga

We haven’t had any stories about Zynga being evil for awhile. They’re currently trying to get a patent on virtual currencies. Surely they can’t have been the first company to use those, but the US patent laws are bizarre to me so who knows?

It is however clear that if spending real money to buy virtual currency is something which can be patented, it would be worth big money. This is because the next step would be for Zynga to threaten legal action against any company (assuming they get the patent) using a similar scheme if they don’t pay some kind of licensing fees.

Partly because of this patent application, Zynga has recently been valued at the colossal sum of approx $5.5bil (yes billion.) To put this in context, the valuing of a non-public startup is something of a black art. During the dot com boom, plenty of companies which later went bust boasted huge valuations on paper (and I worked for at least one of them.)

Gaming News:Zynga as Farmvillains, Medal of Honor needs to sell 3 mill to get sequel, Move not a pre-order product, LOTRO goes F2P

OK, taking a brief break from Recettear to write up some news.  (RPS found it as addictive as I am, but I’m not really sure I’d be so fast to pin ‘game of the year’ accolades on a roguelike with an economic sim attached, however engagingly executed.)

It strikes me this week that gaming ‘news’ that makes the rounds is just as likely to be reactions to some strongly worded opinion piece (as per this week’s wave of excitement about yet another article noting that Zynga made a reputation from copying game ideas) as actual news.

Zynga as Farmvillains

The SF Weekly article that got everyone going this week includes some prize quotes from ex-Zynga employees.

“I don’t fucking want innovation,” the ex-employee recalls Pincus saying. “You’re not smarter than your competitor. Just copy what they do and do it until you get their numbers.”

This isn’t really news, as anyone who had ever compared Farm Town to Farmville can attest, and it isn’t illegal either – game mechanics aren’t really copyrightable per se.

CEOs in general prefer to gain a reputation as evil than as incompetent, and since Zynga actually makes more profit than Facebook, I imagine Mark Pincus is laughing all the way to the bank. And of course, now they’re busy buying up more innovative companies and probably will be keener to open up new markets for gamers who don’t actually like Farmville. Who knows?

What’s more interesting is the assumption that social gaming on facebook is a waning phenomenon. I’m not entirely sure how much of this is wishful thinking.

And whether you like Zynga games or not, journalists are reluctant to give much credit to developers or companies who do a really good job of polishing an existing design and selling it to a new crowd. It’s rarely just as simple as copying. The more evil things that Zynga did were to do with pushing dodgy or even fraudulent ‘free’  offers on people, and spamming the known universe with farmville and wants-to-be-viral marketing spam.

If you find yourself playing a F2P game and are annoyed at all the in-game adverts, inducements to recruit friends, or other anti-immersive popups, blame Zynga et al for bringing the levels of success enjoyed by these forms of sales to people’s attention. (Meanwhile I’ll be playing Recettear.)

Sell 3 million or go home for Medal of Honor

In a brief look into the mindset of gaming executives. the Medal of Honor executive producer this week said that if the game doesn’t sell at least 3 million copies, there won’t be a sequel.

This is just another indication of how the gaming industry is taking its lead from Hollywood.

Maybe Steve Jobs was right about iDevices owning 50% of the US gaming market …

Venturebeat has some numbers in on which devices Americans choose to play mobile games. And they claim that Apple is chasing hard on Nintendo’s heels in that department.

There’s a point where you have to take these figures with a pinch of salt, because people don’t necessarily play the same sorts of games on a DS as they would on an iPhone. It’s the same logic which says that minesweeper is the most popular PC game around the world. It may technically be true, but it’s all in the interpretation.

In any case, a larger gaming market should be a good thing for everyone, right? I also wonder how well the iPhones will be holding on vs Android in a year or so. Yes, people love their iDevices but do they really care whether it’s Apple under the hood as long as they have a nice shiny gadget with friendly UI (as many of the more recent Android devices do) to play with? Or at that point, do other factors come into play?

Paypal freezes indie developers account

Having mentioned Minecraft last week, it’s sad to report that the developer has had his paypal account frozen.

Hopefully it will just be that they weren’t expecting the sort of economic activity that comes with coding up a breakout indie hit game and when that’s sorted out and proven, they’ll release the cash. But paypal has a poor reputation, and if they are still allowing payments to go into the frozen account, that’s bad practice for any bank.

But if I were him, I’d be getting a lawyer.

LOTRO goes F2P (US Only)

Lord of the Rings Online, Turbine’s AAA MMO, has opened the doors to free to pay/ freemium players for the first time. It hasn’t been without some teething troubles – the usual queues and lag as masses of extra players hop over to check out the new free shinies.

Back in Europe, F2P launch has been delayed until at least the end of the month. I don’t have much to add on this except that it’s disappointing but better not to launch if the code or infrastructure isn’t ready.

Sony gearing up to go head to head with Microsoft over Move

Sony have been busy setting expectations this week about the forthcoming launch of the PS3 Move.

According to an interview with MCV this week, they have deliberately avoided a big, expensive wave of hype prior to next week’s launch. Instead, they’re looking for an ‘evergreen seller’ with the advertising set to ramp up after the device is available on shelves. In fact, their retail promotional tour in the UK is mostly heading for big supermarkets and not specialist games shops.

I thought that was an interesting, and probably wise, angle compared to the crazy hype campaigns that kick in for software launches.

And VP Marketing from the US Sony campaign agree that it’s not a huge budget endeavour. They can’t outspend Microsoft and won’t try.

Is crossplayer the fusion of single player and multiplayer?

This was an article on The Escapist that caught my eye, discussing where the lines are drawn between single player games, multiplayer online, and story driven.

Coming from an MMO perspective, I find myself puzzled because in games like WoW et al, that problem has been solved (for some value of solved). Feel like soloing? Fine, go solo. Feel like a battleground? Sure, go queue for one of those.

But this is a different approach, and one more akin to monsterplay in LOTRO, where you might not know in advance whether you are fighting NPCs or actual players. So there is the possibility for any of the AIs to be taken over and controlled by a real opponent.

I’m not really convinced about how fun that’s going to be. But it’s an interesting read.