[Misc] EA acquisition rumours, Avengers Alliance, smart games, long games

Rumours spread quickly around the gaming news sites yesterday that Nexon may be interested in  launching a buyout of Electronic Arts. Nexon is a South Korean company best known for F2P MMOs like Maple Story and Dragon’s Nest. EA, as readers probably know, is an American company best known for a wide slew of AAA games and includes some fan favourite development houses. This is a pretty flimsy rumour, especially as it would involve Nexon getting involved in a load of different markets that are new to them. But who knows?

So yeah, what is happening to the gaming industry that this is even a rumour?

My interpretation is that although EA does hold a lot of market share (and mindshare), they haven’t been able to translate this into profits as efficiently as other gaming companies. They’ve also been seen as not adapting well to the death of retail and growth of direct download. So this is reflected in the share price, which is perhaps low enough to be seen as a good deal to a buyer who is better at monetising games. And that’s why some analysts are saying EA is vulnerable to a takeover; it may be seen as good value for money.That’s about as far as my analysis gets since I’m not much of a market person – any readers have any thoughts?

The magical online universes of EA games

One of the strategies EA announced recently was that they want all of their brands to become ‘online universes’. So you could interact with them via console, mobile games, PC, tablet, etc.

Play Battlefield, for example, on a console in the evening, a PC in the midnight hours, a smartphone on the commute and a tablet while at the office. All the data, all the progress and achievements, will carry from one device to the other, allowing the player to play “how he wants, when he wants and on the device he wants”.

No one who reads gaming blogs need really blink at this. After all, we’re people who read (or write) and think about games when we aren ‘t actually playing them, which is I suppose a sort of ‘online multiverse of brands.’ Anyone who has been in an MMO guild probably interacted via a guild bulletin board, which you might have checked from your smartphone or from work (during lunch hours, obviously). Sandbox games like EVE pretty well encourage this type of constant immersion and interaction, if only so that you can find out what’s going on when you aren’t playing.

So it shouldn’t be shocking if EA wonders whether people who love, say, Football Manager, might want to interact with it somehow during the day. It’s not the worst idea in the world ever. Why play Farmville on Facebook if you had a Football Manager game on Facebook you could play instead when you felt in the mood for a Facebook gaming fix (which I am mocking less now that I have found one I like, see below)?

However, as gamers it is a bit concerning because I wouldn’t trust EA (or any other developer) not to push incentives for playing the game on as many platforms as possible. Which is demoralising if you have the wrong type of smartphone or only want to play it on the PC in the evenings. If I buy a PC game, I expect to be able to beat it just by playing it on the PC. I certainly don’t want to feel forced to go outside that to find better stat boosts, or to feel at a disadvantage because I don’t have an iPad to play some spinoff game on as well. This online universes strategy could be used to gateway the most colossal grinds known to mankind.

Yet, again as MMO players, we’re pretty well used to being advised to go read guides, watch videos, use addons, and learn how to play our game of choice better from outside the game.

Ultimately, if the games themselves and their spinoffs on other devices are good, this could still be a fun trend. It just sounds ominous when EA talk about it.

Marvel: Avengers Alliance

avengers_fb

So, Avengers Assemble (as it is known in the UK) was released yesterday. We’re seeing it over the weekend, so expect some pictures of Loki here next week (le swoon).

Meanwhile, for my Marvel superheroes fix, I have been playing Marvel: Avengers Alliance on Facebook. Yup, I know I hate Facebook and all of its works, especially the F2P social games, but this one is pretty cool. It’s a turn based pokemon-style team fighty game, in which you collect and level up your superhero pals and go take on the forces of naughtiness and supervillainy. It has all the usual social paraphenalia, such as being able to go visit your friends ‘cities’ once a day to get extra stuff and needing some friends to help you boost various power aspects.

But I find the social side fairly low key in M:AA compared to your typical Zynga game, the writing of the various adventures is pretty good and the different currencies work well together to keep you focussed and interested. By this I mean, you need in game cash to help pay for levelling up and research, which you can get by sending heroes off on long missions on their own. You also need ‘shield points’ for levelling and research which you can get from your friends, and ‘command points’ to acquire new heroes which you can get from beating end of level bosses.

As per pokemon, there are different ‘types’ of heroes (tanks, scrappers, blasters, infiltrators, tacticians) each of whom are strong/ weak against other types, and some of your heroes will also have special bonuses. For example, flying heroes are immune to ground attacks, Asgardians (like Thor and Sif) are immune to fire and cold, armoured tanky heroes (like Colossus or Thing) are immune to bleeds et al. And you can use research to get better weapons for your character, who is a SHIELD agent.

The other feature in this game that I enjoy is the writing. Each episode is a self contained story which is part of the larger story arc, and I enjoy that all the characters have recognisable voices. Whoever wrote the game likes the comic characters, and that comes across well.

I haven’t actually felt the need to give them any money for this game, even though I really like it and would not begrudge them the cash. The F2P framework always makes me feel like paying is for losers. If it had a tip jar, I’d probably contribute.

And a couple more links

A proper links post will be coming this weekend, but for now here are a couple of posts about gaming in general that I found interesting.

Brainy Gamer takes issue with the argument that games are dumb, and is getting together a list of smart games. Here is his current catalogue of smart games as submitted by readers, see if you agree with the choices.

Keen ponders the length of games, and considers the point at which he gets exhausted with a game and can’t be bothered to finish it. I have definitely found this, and whether it’s to do with the length of the game, the style of the game (it can be hard to keep up with a very long storyline that has tons of characters, twists, etc), or simply mechanics that don’t grab the players, I think games can definitely be too long. Lots of Final Fantasy games end up in this category for me, even the ones I like.

[Links] Where are the links of yesterweek?

Liore wonders if one of the big themes in the gaming industry this year is animosity between players and developers. She picks out the Day 1 ME3 DLC and the GW2 pre-purchase in particular, but I also wonder if this increased animosity is “a thing.” Maybe it’s down to consumerism – I have seen the enemy and it is the capitalist system, etc. We could also ask “Can players and developers ever be friends?” when the object of one is to make money from the other. Maybe this is part of the appeal of Kickstarters. Zoso also writes about EA being voted worst company in America by some consumer website earlier this month.

Or is it that MMO players tend to really hate their game-of-choice’s developers? Chris@Levelcapped wonders what the real cost of making an MMO is in terms of player relationships, noting that Blizzard and Bioware have both had reputations in the past as well loved companies, before they entered the MMO field. (The history of Bioware’s relationship with consumers in particular is likely to be a case study in marketing courses well into the future. I actually really enjoy their more recent stuff, but there’s some real hatred out there.) Then again, I don’t think anyone really hates Trion.

Werit comments on one of the SWTOR story features which is that bits of your character’s story can happen unexpectedly when you thought you were just returning to your ship or zoning into the orbital station. It is actually really cool when you first see this, and realise that some of your story won’t be stuck in phased instances in the middle of nowhere. It gives things a real sense of omg this really is my story.

Milady wonders if there is anything she can do as a consumer to get the message across to developers that she really doesn’t want to play female characters who totter around in high heels and low cut tops, given that she still wants to play games like GW2 and Diablo 3. Realistically the answer is probably that there is no way unless you are willing to be very selective about the games you play   (eg. you could probably get through Skyrim without heels, Torchlight had pretty cool female characterisation, and not all MMOs use that character style.)

Zubon writes a thoughtful post about balance, discussing whether MMO fights are balanced around everyone in the group knowing the fight, and the difference between balancing for gear/dps and balancing for skill/ knowledge. My personal pet hate are fights that are balanced around using particular consumables  or resistance on gear (Final Fantasy games in the past have been dreadful for this.)

Gevlon has a theory that World of Tanks is rigged. I don’t pretend to understand the details of this since I always assumed the point of matchmaking was to be able to field reasonably matched teams, but you don’t expect your own stats to also be stealth nerfed/ buffed. He’s also thinking about what to do with all the ISK he’s making in EVE, and I think struggling a bit with the notion that there are lots of different viable goals and win conditions in decent MMOs, and there may not be a single right way to play.

Stropp wonders why you never hear about anti-PK corps in EVE.  My experience is that it’s very difficult for guilds which form to maintain the status quo/ law to keep momentum, plus there’s nothing you can really do to stop gankers coming back later or logging alts to keep griefing.

Rampant Coyote has some thoughts on crowdsourced funding and what it means for indie developers.

Should publishers be worried? Short version: Yes. Long version: Yes, and if I were them I’d be scrambling to redefine myself in the new paradigm.

Ardwulf explains things that frustrate him about Guild Wars. It’s a game I have never really been able to get into and I think he’s hit on some of the reasons why. In fact, I think I hit my head against that exact same mission in Nightfall a few times, and put the game aside. You know how sometimes you know something is a decent game but don’t feel very motivated to play it?

Kotaku report that the PS Vita is doing really badly on sales in Japan, which was probably predictable given the predominance of cheap games on mobile phones. Do you spend your cash on a specialist handheld games system or buy a smartphone and load up on cheap games?

Keen asks readers “what is your one MMO must-have?” and I’ll get in first with ‘must be able to run on my machine’ or ‘must be a price I’m willing to pay.’

Massively asks “Do kids belong in guilds?” which can be quite a sensitive topic in family friendly games. I imagine a lot of adult gamers would prefer not to hang with other people’s kids during their gaming time. Having said that, I’ve played in guilds with some smart, reponsible 15 year olds and as long as everyone is patient and sensible about things, it can work.

Predictions for MMOs/ Gaming in 2011

It is that time when we look ahead and try to predict what the year ahead may bring. Arbitrary and I have put our heads together to see what we can come up with…

In general, it’s going to be another huge year for both social gaming and mobile gaming. There will be more massive hits along the lines of Angry Birds, and both iPhones and Android will continue to be strong platforms. We’ll see the trend for Android to increase in popularity continue as more and more models come onto the market.

The debate as to what does or doesn’t constitute an MMO will continue. Facebook will continue as the platform of choice for social games, particularly on handsets, since it actually is handset agnostic.

The iPad will not really live up to the potential that the industry had hoped. Already we’re seeing that magazine subscriptions on the iPad are below predictions. There will be popular games, yes, but they will never come close to the popularity of the phone-based versions. So iPad owners had best get used to continuing to receive iPhone conversions.

I predict something big with Zynga this year. They’re huge, but they’ve not had much success in breaking away from Facebook. The desire to do so is still there … maybe they’ll even try to take over FB or merge the companies in some way. Whatever it is, it’ll be crazy.

E-sports will be a big trend this year in some form or other, as publishers try to find more ways to draw in the ‘core audience’ into more social, F2P type games. Expect at least one hugely successful multiplayer game, possibly on a console or on Facebook, with this kind of worldwide e-sports competitive ethos at its core.

One of the other big trends this year was for breakout indie games. This is nothing new, but Minecraft in particular has been a stunning hit. In addition, the various Steam indie bundles, more attention from PC journalists and blogs, and ‘pay what you want’ weekend offers have gotten more people to try them out than ever before. This trend continues, and we’ll see at least one successful indie MMO launch this year.

Interactive/ internet TV is going to be another big trend this year. Look for gaming on Google TV in particular (one area where Zynga may have their eye). And this is a platform that favours simple social games.

This year also marks the release of the Nintendo 3DS, the 3D version of the DS. Whilst it will sell well enough to be marked as a success, they will signally fail to persuade most users to upgrade. However nice the graphics, there’s unlikely to be a killer game that really uses the 3D. (If it played films, however …) This won’t be a good year for handhelds, losing more ground to the ubiquitous smartphones.

WoW/ Blizzard

This year Blizzard plays it safe with WoW. There won’t be any big features analogous to the dungeon finder. Patches will be more of the raid instance, dailies, extra minigames type of content.

Whilst some players will get bored quickly of Cataclysm, the strategy to draw in more casual players will work, by and large.

The balance of ranged vs melee is going to continue to be a big feature of this expansion.

The leaked expansion plans date the next expansion for 2010. I predict this is correct and we’ll hear more about the next expansion and about Blizzard’s plans to offer more frequent, smaller expansions. Wrath will soon be perceived as the golden age of WoW in much the same way that TBC was by the old guard for most of Wrath.

The big change for the next expansion will be a crafting revamp.

Blizzcon will be held in Europe.

Blizzard will announce their next game, currently codenamed Titan. It will, as expected, be a different genre from WoW. (Please take a moment to imagine what the WoW community might be like if Blizzard’s next game is a FPS. Heck, imagine what the Blizzard community for a FPS MMO might be like? Scared yet? This is why they will come back with a more player friendly version of realID.)

Other games

Guild Wars 2 will not release in 2011.

Neither will World of Darkness (Vampire).

Neither will The Secret World

The walking in stations expansion for EVE will release and will generate a flurry of ‘look at this amazing character creator’ posts. It will not substantially expand the player base, though and will largely be seen by existing players as watering down the current game.

Star Wars: the Old Republic will release and will fail to either gain a million subscribers or to be a game people want to play for 10 years (both predictions made by EA). It may even fail completely within 6 months. (I will still play it.)

Mark Jacobs will announce a new project, DaoC 2.

There will be more discussion about the F2P model as it applies to MMOs, focussing more on practical details of ‘what works’. People will pick their games at least as much based on payment models as anything else, to the point of having preferences for very specific flavours of F2P.

There will also be extended discussions in the blogosphere about how trustworthy various publishers are viewed as being. This is partly connected with games that failed in 2010 (do you trust this game to still be going in 6 months before you invest too much time into it?) but also with the way the F2P model has been implemented by companies such as SOE.

LOTRO will release their Isengard expansion which will be comparable in size to Mirkwood. ie. a couple of levelling zones, new instances, and a raid. They will increasingly be spread thin trying to keep both the lifetime endgame player base happy and the new F2P players who are more interested in lower level revamps.

2011 is a big year for RPGs. In fact, it will probably also be the biggest year ever for computer games in general.

Diablo III will release, will be a massive success. It will contain various features borrowed from WoW, and so the cycle comes full circle.

Dragon Age II will release, will be a massive success.

Mass Effect III will release, will be a massive success.

The Witcher II will release, will be a massive success (but possibly not on the scale of the previous three games, which is a shame.)

And not a RPG, but yes, Portal II will release, will be a massive success.

Whatever Infinity Ward does for EA will release, will be a massive success.

There will be at least one film tie in game that is actually good, and will be a massive success.

Microsoft attempt to clean up the Xbox Live community in some way, possibly involving an element of realID.

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.

How we learn. And what is fun anyway?

The discussion this week about levelling in WoW – too fast? too easy? not enough challenge for experienced gamers? has inspired me to do some digging around for information about how adults learn. Sorry if this gets a bit technical.

There is a lot of interesting work done on this topic, and I think the notion of Andragogy (how adults learn) is actually pretty cool. I especially like the notion that as adults, when we learn something new we want to be able to use it as soon as possible. I always thought that was just me being really impatient ;)

There are two basic views on adult learning:

1. Learning should be about overcoming a series of challenges. From this point of view, a bit of anxiety is part of the learning process. It would be very common (maybe even necessary) for people who are learning something new to think, “Eek, I feel a bit lost and out of my depth here, how can I do this new thing?” You have to get to that stage before you can move on and actually learn, and deciding to ease the anxiety by mastering the new topic is one of the ways adults motivate themselves to learn things.

There’s an interesting quote here in which one psychologist claims that learning isn’t really fun for adults, and says that learning only happens when survival anxiety (omg I need to know how to do this OR ELSE) outweighs learning anxiety (erk, this is a new thing and I don’t know how to do it.)

Schein dismisses the notion that learning is fun, especially for adults. He equates adult learning within organizations with that of the brainwashing techniques he observed while studying prisoners of the Korean War

Each of these anxieties could be managed, for example learning can be constructed in a “safe” environment where the consequences of failure are minimal. Survival anxiety can obviously be increased by threatening job loss, a lack of security, or recognizing competitive elements of the market.

So this is where games come in. The game should be a safe environment for learning where the consequences either way are pretty low. In a more competitive game, or where players are more invested (maybe your guild performance is important to your social life) then you get the other anxiety too.

I think anyone who has raided with a progression guild will probably know that feeling of being terrified of failing to learn quickly enough and letting the side down. But on the other hand, hobby gamers tend to enjoy the learning anxiety and being able to make it go away by mastering the game. We’re good at learning. Hold onto that, it’s a very useful life skill :) People in this group would dispute the claim that learning isn’t fun because for us, it’s the entire basis of our hobby!

Just bear in mind that it actually might not be fun for a lot of other people.

2. Learning through play / experience. The idea here is that people will learn by doing things, and they might not realise how much they have learned until they get a chance to think about it and talk to other people afterwards. There is also an idea that all learners are equal; as long as they are actually doing something (ie. and not avoiding the experience altogether) then they are learning and will have something to bring to the discussion.

This is why the WoW blogosphere is so interesting. Some people want to talk about strategies for high end raiding, others about how they work gaming in around their family life, and others just want to share pictures of their in game pets. They are all sharing different but valid experiences of the same game.

So from this perspective, the goal is to create a friendly environment that should be easy to get into with lots of ways for people to go off and experience it in whichever way they want. In other words, the buffet approach to MMOs.

So there are some kinds of player who just don’t want to deal with stress or anxiety. They aren’t playing because they want to be challenged in that way. They might be challenged in different ways (I want to collect 100 pets! I want to explore the virtual world!) but it will all be very controllable and they probably appreciate having a well marked story path available.

I think that the more MMOs bring in gaming elements, the more they will tend towards the first category. Structured sets of challenges, underpinned by strong competition to motivate people. And the mystery of WoW at the moment is how they are trying to make the low levels offer an immersive learning environment at the same time as the high level raiding offers a very different sort of gaming experience. Clearly, if you are an experienced gamer coming into the game new, it’s just going to be frustrating until you reach endgame (at which point it will be frustrating for different reasons ;) ).

Gaming News: Shattering hits Azeroth, Elder Scrolls 5 in production, Skills change in EVE, casting for Uncharted film, details on FF Agito XIII

As you can see from the subject line, this is a quiet time of year for gaming news. But there are some moves afoot to change that.

Bioware has already been issuing teasers for a new game announcement to be made after the Spike VGA awards, and now Sony have also announced that a new exclusive PS3  title will be announced then also (word is that it will be Uncharted 3, which probably blows Bioware out of the water.)

As predicted last week, there have been a lot of heavy discounting sales this week. Steam’s indie bundles have been particularly good value if you had any interest in some of the games, and their sale still has a few days to run. I picked up a copy of Audiosurf for approx. zilch a couple of days back, which has been good fun. Anyone else make any good sales buys?

Interestingly, Steam are encouraging people to make a wish list. When I tried, I struggled to think of many games to put on it, on the grounds that if I really wanted something I probably have bought it already. Not really sure what to make of that. Amazon is also entering the world of digital download, at least on their US site.

An article from Massively that caught my eye was about Wurm Online which has revamped its tutorial. WO is very much a sandbox game, I never had much time to play other than checking it out and thinking that it reminded me a bit of Tale in the Desert. But if that sounds like your thing, then this might be a good time to jump in.

The Shattering hits Azeroth

Phase one of the Cataclysm hit World of Warcraft this week, transforming all of the low level zones and quests and introducing some new class/ race combinations. The rest of the expansion (the new races and new high level zones and content) is what you will be buying if you purchase the expansion on 7th Dec.

There are no comprehensive reviews out yet, and I’ll be writing more about my experiences next week but the lower level game is now incredibly slick, story focussed, and bang up to date with lots of interesting ways to stitch the quest based play together. I’ve been impressed at the parts I have seen.  No one does this type of thing better than Blizzard and possibly only Bioware even come close. Or in other words, if you like themepark quest-led style RPGs, there has never been a better time to join the party. And Blizzard are sweetening the deal at the moment with some pretty good discounts on WoW and all of the existing expansions. Come on in, the water’s lovely :)

Also, Blizzard announced more details of the various Cataclysm launch events which see their dev team sent off around the world to host in different cities. London gets Ghostcrawler, and … does anywhere else really matter anyway? (Me, I’ll be in bed at midnight on 7th Dec.)

Elder Scrolls 5 in production

Eurogamer quote an unnamed source that Bethesda is working on a 5th game in the Elder Scrolls series. This would be a sequel to Oblivion, but hopefully not with the same dreadful levelling system.

Still if – as is likely – this is true, it means good news to come for fans of the single player RPG. Or is it? Various commentators have wondered if the new game might be an MMO. (I think this would be a pretty bad idea, but who knows?)

EVE Online ditches the learning skills

As you may know, EVE is based on characters learning skills. Currently, a whole batch of metaskills exist which make it possible to learn other skills more quickly. So a savvy player would train those up first and the save hundreds of hours in skill training time for future skills.

But as from an upcoming patch, this will no longer be the case. Learning skills are disappearing from EVE, and players who spent time learning them will get the skill points back – the link is to the official announcement and it has graphs and everything to explain why they did this.

Another entry on the dev blog this week touched on the issue of F2P and item shops. Short summary: they will soon be selling vanity items via some kind of a cash shop. We don’t know if the vanity items will also be craftable in game.

Casting announced for Uncharted film

It’s a sign of how weak the news has been that this even gets a mention here. But for those interested, Mark Wahlberg will play Nathan Drake (ie. the lead) in the film of Uncharted, and the producers are talking to Robert de Niro about playing his father.

This has caused a large amount of concern amongst fans who don’t think he fits the role. But that’s likely to have been the case whoever was cast, although my personal pick would have been Tom Hardy (Eames in Inception).

Final Fantasy Agito XIII

I think anyone could be excused for being confused about the various different games being touted around in the FF13 series. Some details about this one, which is to be a PSP game, have been released this week, but frankly I’m still confused. And I don’t think we’ve had much mention of FF Versus 13 (which I think was to be a fighter) yet either.

Gaming News: Bioware’s Mystery Game, LOTRO takes hobbits to Isengard, Music games nosedive, Jagex beats patent suit, Activision closes more studios

blackfriday

So apparently this is a traditional week of sales in the US, which brings me to the picture to the left. What’s odd about this screenshot?  It’s from amazon.co.uk. Yes, I’m puzzled too.

In any case, keep an eye out for sales from your favourite US vendor (eg. steam, etc) this week. There does come a point when virtual shops become almost indistinguishable from any other type of online shop with the various sales, time limited offers, etc … which is of course the point.

CODBLOPS duly and predictable broke some sales records last week, despite reviews generally agreeing that it isn’t as good as the predecessor. I presume people are keen for their annual shmup purchase and if it’s disappointing will just whine about it until they get a chance to buy next years’. But it is interesting that the quality of the game doesn’t seem to affect buying decisions unless it really does dip below some kind of acceptable level.

Speaking of which, Activision now claim that Infinity Ward (the studio which made MW2) has now been successfully restructured which means that they have 3 studios working on Call of Duty games. But we don’t know which one will be tapped for next year’s episode.

A lot of MMO bloggers have been writing about Perpetuum this week, an EVE-like game featuring giant robots which is in beta and giving out beta keys at the moment. Interestingly, even the home page gives me an EVE vibe.

EVE itself has released footage of a rather stunning character generator that will go live alongside Incarna (the upcoming expansion that will allow characters to walk around inside space stations). I do still have my doubts about a game where in a standard starter guide, trying to scam other players is listed as a standard way for newbies to make in-game money.

Posts of the week are from Rhii and Alas, both on the subject of having to choose between friendship and progression in WoW. And this illustrates nicely some of the  structural issues in WoW which break up the community (not to mention stressing out players unduly) and which Blizzard has shown no interest in addressing by adding support for raid alliances or multiple guild membership. (ie. anything that would make it easier to be a member of multiple social organisations, some of which might be focussed on different in game objectives.)

The notion that if you want progression you need to pay for it by dumping your mates just reminds me of Fame (“Fame costs and right here’s where you start paying!!”). It doesn’t have to be that way.

Bioware’s Mystery Game

Bioware have been dropping teasers this week about a new unannounced game, promising to reveal all at the VGA awards.

Clues so far have been translated as:

Amazingly, people are attempting to sound somewhat excited about the picture of the man with the gun. I’d say it’s either going to be Mass Effect 3 (in which case they should have teased with a picture of Garrus without his top on) or … some shooter. Kotaku are guessing that it’s a multi-player spinoff of Mass Effect, but surely if it was a scifi game they’d show space or something cool?

I wouldn’t begrudge Bioware if they wanted to take a shot (sic) at a FPS. Good luck to them. But I don’t think they really get the whole PR thing sometimes …

We’re taking the hobbits to Isengard … in Autumn 2011

Turbine announced that the next expansion for LOTRO, The Rise of Isengard, is due next Autumn. It isn’t going to be a huge expansion like Moria, Turbine are moving away from that kind of update due to pacing issues. But it sounds as though there will be plenty to do.

Also they are due to release more raid content next year before that.

I think the pacing comment was very telling. Maybe players would prefer more piecemeal content releases rather than waiting around a couple of years for a big chunk of content all in one piece.

Music games face a downturn

Remember those halcyon days when Rock Band and Guitar Hero were the big thing? All in the past now, apparently gamers just aren’t buying the things in the same quantities any more.

Jagex beats patent suit

Jagex, developers of Runescape, won a patent suit this week and the CEO took the opportunity to have a snipe at the dreadful US patent system. I don’t have much to add except for yes, the US patent system is extremely awful and allows people to pursue frivolous patent claims which end up being very expensive to the defending party on very little evidence.

(I was surprised that the losing party wasn’t required to pay costs, I’d have assumed that to be standard.)

Activision closes more studios

Apparently if your last game wasn’t a huge hit, Activision loses interest. This week they moved to close Bizarre Creations (maker of Project Gotham Racing), although there is a rumour that Microsoft is among several companies interested in buying the developer.

They also closed Budcat Creations, a studio that has been working on Guitar Hero and Band Hero games (see above note about music games being down on sales).

Gaming News: CODBlops breaks records, Rock Band dev up for sale, APB bought by F2P publisher, Fixes for FF14

CODBlops, if anyone is curious, is the going shorthand for Call of Duty: Black Ops which has been breaking sales records this week. I don’t play shooters, and I’m not really sure from reviews whether people think it’s actually better than the last entry in the series, Modern Warfare 2. More details and news snippets on CODBlops (a word I’m going to keep using now) below.

Another minor (ish) news story that came up was the notion that SC2 hasn’t really taken off yet in South Korea in the way Blizzard might have wanted. This is the report, from Edge magazine.

A newspaper report out this week disclosed that thousands of prisoners in the UK are allowed to play computer games. This was greeted with the usual howl of outrage which happens whenever prisoners are treated like human beings (such as being given the vote, for example). But if you actually read the article, the consoles are paid for by the prisoner’s family and access to them is part of an incentive scheme for good behaviour. So the games are part of a schema of behavioural therapy. Lest we forget, part of the prison remit is still to rehabilitate and even if the consoles just encourage more civilised conditions and behaviour behind bars, then they are a Good Thing.

Also of interest to WoW players, Blizzard announced that race changes to the new Cataclysm races will be available on launch night.

Post of the week is Dusty’s time travel imaginings of an evening in the near future when you sit down to play your favourite game …

CODBlops Breaks Records

Ah, watch those first day sales records tumble as another entry in the CoD franchise rappels its way onto the shelves.

And as usual, players immediately start to find and exploit any bugs they can find to gain advantage in multiplayer mode. Treyarch took the unusual step of biting the hand that feeds by criticising the gamer culture that makes people ‘nerd famous’ who have posted details on how to exploit a glitch. This, btw, is the same gamer culture that has made it lucrative business for guilds to race to be first to post strategies and kill videos of new WoW raid bosses. Yup, maybe he has a point.

The other rumour doing the rounds is that the next instalment in the franchise is to be set in space and to feature space marines.  Personally I think they should go back to Napoleonic times, because surely people are sick of space marines now … or is that just me?

Viacom to sell Harmonix

Viacom has lost a lot of money on its video games arm, has decided that it doesn’t really have the expertise to manage the games business, and is planning to sell Harmonix (maker of Rock Band.)

Gamepolitics.com wonders whether the developer would be a good fit for EA. That’s my guess also.

APB bought by F2P publisher

There is an unconfirmed rumour floating around that APB (current holder of the shortest-time-from-launch-to-closure MMO of all time) has been bought by a free to play company. The comments on the RPS post which I linked here are quite an interesting read also.

Whether or not APB will ever go live again we really don’t know. Presumably with all these rumours there should be an announcement soon.

And on that note, what’s with CCP not having announced World of Darkness yet? Developers discussed it at the grand masquerade and still nothing on the website.

Square Enix announces update for FF14

I haven’t said much about Final Fantasy 14 on here since the game launched. This is because I’m still sore that I never was able to get a free trial so never found out whether/ how well it would work on my machine and consequently didn’t feel inclined to dig into my pockets to buy a game which I might not be able to run. (Or in other words, la la la I’m waiting for the PS3 version …)

Anyhow, the game looks gorgeous in screenshots, but there have been some issues. Squenix have a fairly extensive plan to fix this and it sounds as though they’re going to cover a lot of ground. Any FF14 players have any comments on the plans?

Gaming News: Red Shirt Guy immortalised in WoW, Kinect Launches, EA halves losses, Lego Universe, Genetic Algorithms beat SC2

EA held an investor call this week and although I have summarised the main points of note below, it is instructive as to how most mainstream news blogs deal with new stories. A single investor call from the CEO was chopped up and served as multiple different news stories, one point in each. But they’re mostly based on various points made in the same presentation.

It’s really very different from the way the regular news is shown (I think I’d kick the BBC if they tried to report news this way) where usually there’s one main news stories and then some associated commentary to fill up the extra slots.

Compare mmo-champion to WoW Insider to see an example of comprehensive news vs chopped up news. (Not wishing to diss WoW Insider who do provide some added value via commentary and analysis on their news items rather than just posting a stream of single paragraphs.)

This week’s prophet of doom for SWTOR is BigPoint boss, speaking at the London Games Conference, who said:

“If you look at Star Wars from EA and BioWare, they estimated a development budget of over $100m,” he explained.

“This is an online game for many million of subscribers, so the publisher does not understand that a subscription model is not the future. With micro-transactions maybe I see the game having a chance but I don’t think that EA or BioWare will ever be profitable with this game.”

(Feel free to send me links to any blog posts, forum posts or news items about anyone being dubious about SWTOR’s future. Maybe I can make this a regular weekly item.)

And speaking of Star Wars: The Old Republic you’d like to vote on the new name for the Jedi Wizard, place your mark here.

The Story of Red Shirt Guy

It’s a fairytale story of geek meets geek king, impresses king with knowledge of obscure law, and wins a kingdom. OK, not a fairytale story although you wouldn’t really know that from the way people are spinning it.

Red Shirt guy distinguished himself by showing up at the Q&A session at Blizzcon (in a red shirt, yes) and asking a lore question that caught out Chris Metzen, Blizzard’s lore supremo.

I haven’t followed the story to a great extent after that but there were some videos on youtube, and Blizzard fixed the lore problem and also included a red shirt dwarf guy NPC in Cataclysm as a nod to the guy. Blacksen and his guild also decided that they’d like to do something nice for him so invited him to come raid with them and pick up a very nice and very lore-inspired mount in ICC.

Oh, and he also has Aspergers.

Kinect launches

This week also saw the launch of the Xbox Kinect controller, which allows a user to control a game by gesturing and moving around, rather than by using a manual controller.

Destructoid review Kinect, with answers to all your questions about ‘how much room do you actually need.’ I have also seen a report that Kinect has some issues with face recognition on dark skinned users (but I’d be astounded if they hadn’t tested that thoroughly before going live, because the PR would be pretty awful if that’s true.) It does highlight one of the difficulties with testing face recognition and voice recognition software – you need to test against a very wide range of faces, accents etc. so as not to be accidentally racist.

Kotaku review a bunch of launch titles here.

In an interview with Gamasutra, a spokesman claims that Kinect is going to outsell the iPad, and Microsoft commented elsewhere that they are forecasting 5 million sales this year.

EA halves losses

EA announced this week that they had a strong quarter and halved their losses compared with Q2 last year. Of course, they had a lot fewer sales as well and this is likely due to their current strategy of releasing fewer but ‘stronger’ games.

Recently released Medal of Honor also apparently picked up 2 million sales in the first two weeks. There’s also a slightly mismatched message coming out of EA about that game. One of their VPs said that MoH didn’t meet their quality expectations. Riccitello on the other hand said that it was a clear success and likely to become another franchise.

2 million sales is hardly a failure in anyone’s book, but still the game will likely be blown away by Black Ops which is due for release next week.

In F2P FPS news, EA also announced that they plan a PC Battlefield game that will be free to play. It is to be gritty and realistic. It sounds as though there will be some progression elements (learn skills, buy equipment and weapons) as well as the usual battleground gameplay. If you think it sounds a bit MMOish, so do they.

This is more about you jumping in with 32 players, maybe playing against strangers, a bit more of an RPG experience, more of an MMO way of approaching things.

If you like the sound of that, you can sign up for the beta here.

Other EA related news this week is that they apparently now have an agreement with Facebook to use Facebook Credits for virtual transactions in their FB games for the next 5 years.

Lego Universe

There was a time a few months ago when people were actually excited about a Lego Universe MMO. Then Minecraft came out and players realised that it provided all the building block related gameplay anyone would want without the annoying MMO Conventions. Right?

In any case, Lego Universe MMO went live a couple of weeks ago and the reviews are trickling in, it doesn’t sound as though it’s quite there yet.

I do very much suspect that Minecraft has sucked in many of the adult players who were intrigued by the idea of a building block world.

Genetic Algorithms applied to Starcraft 2

This is a story to warm the cockles of any computer scientist’s heart.  It came from slashdot, which linked to Louis Brandy, a compsci blogger who explains how someone else was able to use a genetic algorithm to calculate optimal SC2 build orders for the zerg.

If you’d rather read this in English, RPS have a summary here.

It’s pretty cool that the game strategy in SC2 is deep enough that this type of approach throws up some interesting new ideas. I don’t in any way think that knowing some great build orders makes the game faceroll, that’s crazy. Chess Grand Masters still beat chess computers too … for now at least.

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.)