Spurious Gaming Predictions for 2013

My predictions for last year missed the boat on some of the big news stories, although some of the other general comments aren’t too far off and I think I did get that both Diablo 3 and MoP would sell hugely. (Actually even then I was noting that my previous predictions were bad, so there’s a pattern forming here.)

I wondered if the sheen would have rubbed off F2P. I’m sure plenty of F2P games are still doing fine, but Zynga’s plunging share price, and Turbine’s layoffs are making it pretty clear that it’s not the be all and end all of gaming monetisation. With a solid game and pricing model behind them, Riot’s LoL and wargaming.net’s World of Tanks still look to be doing very well. But the sense of ‘Switch every game to F2P!’ that was pervasive at the start of last year isn’t quite how things look now.

I thought SWTOR would be really successful. We know how that worked out. It wasn’t due to being a bad game per se, many people really enjoyed what Bioware brought to the table. But when your definition of successful involves millions of people taking out longterm subscriptions (and when you’ve spent so much money on development that you NEED those millions of long term subs), then you’re largely doomed regardless of how good the game is or isn’t. Yes, the endgame was deeply lacking, which is why they couldn’t sustain the 500k they claimed that they needed. But what they had was fun (in PvE at least). I’m glad the game was made and that I got to play it.

I’m not trying to rescue my rubbish SWTOR prediction but I did say:

Better legs in this case may mean stays strong for 6 months rather than 3, it’ll be down to Bioware in the end to persuade people to stick with it.

I thought TSW would get mixed reviews and a small but dedicated hardcore following. Which is true, and again they weren’t able to sustain the sub numbers that they needed, hence the switch to B2P. It doesn’t mean the game is a failure in terms of gameplay, but something went wrong in the planning/ budgeting/ prediction department.

I thought CCP might see falling numbers. Actually the numbers they have released show that the opposite has happened. The dev team clearly managed to pull some patches out of the bag which pleased the core player base and improved the confidence players have in the game. I’m not sure why they might have attracted new players though, so it may be that this sub increase is due to expanding into new regions or core players buying more accounts.

What’s in Store for 2013

Mobile was a huge story last year and with the increasing numbers of tablets being sold, that can only increase. I personally find tablets a much better platform for games than mobile phones, mostly because I like to save my phone battery for making calls. Also better screen size. Some of the better mobile games I’ve seen with MMOish features are based around collectible cards (like Rage of Bahamut and Shadow Era) – I think we’ll see more of those. They are currently aggressively monetised and that trend can only continue, at least until players desert in large numbers. Hopefully someone will develop a good card based game with a F2P model that isn’t actively painful, until then there is always Duel of the Planeswalkers.

With respect to the games industry, EA  in particular have had a rocky year. Whether they can sustain another without some major changes I’m not sure. There will be more shakeups, and probably more big name failures and layoffs, sadly.

The ongoing competition between Android and iOS continues. Android devices will continue to outsell Apple. The reason that so many devs still develop for Apple first is because metrics show that Apple owners spend more on apps. This is probably a self fulfulling prophecy and we should see more apps jumping to Android next year. (Obviously cross platform games would be better for consumers but you can assume there isn’t much drive for that.)

The ongoing evolution of F2P monetisation continues. This year the trend has been towards convergence of MMOs/Persistent online games and other types of multi player games. For example, with CODBLOPS2 you buy the game and get access to the multiplayer, and can then buy DLC over the year. Similar with ME3 (where I’m told the multiplayer is great). You can compare this with GW2 or the updated TSW where you buy the boxed game, can play the MMO/multiplayer for free, and have a cash shop/ DLC which you can also buy. This convergence trend will continue and there will also be more games that are based on converging multi player with persistence.

Crowdfunding continues to draw attention, but it will become clearer that the games with smaller and more developed scopes are better bets for your kickstarter money. This will not stop people from throwing money at crowdpleasing favourites, but it’s only a matter of time before some big crowdfunded game fails to implement the wildly optimistic initial plans and disappoints hugely.

Rift will continue to lose players slowly as it settles on a core playerbase who prefer it to other offerings enough to pay a subscription. I don’t expect them to move to F2P but there may be more enticing offers for returning players.

I do predict that far from seeing the death of subscription games, we’ll see more games try a subscription model. But they will be small niche games focussed on a core player group, with long betas and careful market testing. The day of the new large AAA MMO sub game is likely over, unless anyone wants to try it with cheap subs.

More and different genres will join the fray. This year Dust and Planetside 2 have led the charge on FPS MMOish games. We’ll see more sports games and RTS MMOs this year. I’m dubious about whether Dust will fulfill CCPs hopes, given how much it must have cost to develop. If they can’t attract the player base they need, we’ll see them lose staff and that may affect EVE.

Although fantasy MMOs feel tired at the moment, the interest in multiplayer persistent gaming is still huge.

The ethics of different types of monetisation/ design will continue to be widely debated, while devs try to find a way to make profits and keep the players entertained without actually killing any staff or players in the process. Mobile will continue to have the most aggressive monetisation strategies, partly because it’s a young person’s platform (yeah I know there are oldies too) and they’re just more susceptible. Plus more disposable income, if we weren’t in the middle of a triple dip recession.

Emphasis on storytelling has been another theme this year, and we’ve seen both the upsides and downsides of this. Players do like good storytelling and will buy games on that basis. They also get invested and very very angry if they’re not happy with how the stories are going (see: ME3 ending). And storytelling is expensive in terms of MMO content. The Walking Dead’s episodic content is however bang on trend with current monetisation trends so hopefully more games will follow that pattern.

SWTOR’s ‘expansion’ will be successful if they can keep the quality up, despite not including class storylines. (There won’t BE any more class storylines.) There are plenty of players who liked the game and want more story who will come try the F2P offering and pay to try the new content.

Blizzard will announce something about Titan this year, even if it is just that it is either delayed or has been abandoned (I don’t think they’ll be able to abandon it, since they do need to be working on something new, but I’m not really sure what they might come up with.) They will also announce an expansion for Diablo 3. And while their current content release schedule for MoP is really solid, it’ll run out of steam by the end of the year.

Wildstar will be terrible. I predict this because it has Bunnygirls, so you know what their target audience is. And also because they want to completely separate playstyles like building and PvP. This means they either have to have separate deep compelling games in multiple genres or a fully functional sandbox. Since I haven’t heard anything that makes me think they’re going to do either of these, I don’t expect much from this game apart from pretty and flashy graphics.

The Elder Scrolls Online may surprise MMO players as a solid entry in the field IF the devs can keep the costs down and their expectations reasonable. I don’t know how possible it will be to keep costs down and produce the kind of fully realised virtual world that Skyrim fans will expect, so I am dubious about this one but willing to be convinced.

We will no doubt hear more about sandbox games, as EQNext and Pathfinder are both aiming to dip into the fantasy sandbox arena. I think this will get players excited by hype, but ultimately sandbox games are for the hardcore unless devs find a way to provide a social sandbox function and I don’t think either of these devs are tending that way. (ie. so many excited players will be disappointed by the realities of the sandbox if they launch.)

Every year I predict DaoC2. Maybe this will be that year.

[Blizzard] Plan B in patch 4.3, and Diablo 3 trailer

Happy Sunday!

Let’s start with a link to the new D3 trailer that was premiered last night (this is an RPS link since the Spike TV one is inaccessible to people in my region. )

If you want to compare with previous ones:

Maybe I’m jaded from awesome computer game trailers these days. It looks fine. I just want to know the release date.

Of greater interest to prospective players, Blizzard also released some more details around how the auction house/ battlenet/ money thing is going to work. So you’ll be able to ‘charge up’ your battle.net balance via paying money into your account, but you cannot withdraw money from it – this isn’t a bank. Proceeds of a D3 cash auction can either go into the battle.net balance (ie. if you want to use the money to pay future subs or something), or they can be cashed out if you pay a cashout fee. What this basically means is that you cannot store auction profits on battle.net until you have a decent amount and then cash all of it out for a single cashout fee. You’ll have to pay a fee on every individual auction you want to cash out.

Or as Mike@MMOCrunch puts it, quadruple dipping. This rather makes the cash AH  useful only if you either want to ‘earn’ money for your WoW subs/future D3 expansions or intend to sell rather large/ high value items. I suspect gold selling/ buying for Diablo 3 in large amounts will be the dominant model on the real money AH, and people will just use the gold AH for selling most gear.

What does a successful patch look like anyway?

Earlier this week I asked readers how they had found the difficulty of WoW’s latest patch, 4.3. Thanks to everyone who responded! The main impression I get is that people are enjoying the content, so that’s definitely a win for Blizzard.

But still, I see concerns around how difficult or challenging the raids and instances are (or more accurately, around how difficult they aren’t). I see this as very much tied into longevity. Ideally every player would like to spend their time working towards clear short and medium term goals, and seeing actual progress towards those goals with every session. (The goals don’t have to be gear related, maybe you’re making gold, making friends, or learning how to play your class/spec better.) So there’s an idea that “Well yes, this is really fun now. But what happens next? It won’t stay this fun for long …” It’s like a protestant work ethic – we cannot admit that we are having fun with the new content because dammit, we didn’t have to work hard enough. And it feels as though admitting that a patch is fun right now is like saying that it won’t be fun next week, or maybe the week after.

So–  when a player meets their medium term goals quickly, what happens then? Either they make new goals, or take a break until new goals present themselves. Some people are better than others at thinking up interesting personal goals, and some goals appeal more to some people than others (eg. I’m not motivated by achievements, personally.) And after you have played a game for long enough, maybe you’ve run out of potential medium term goals that can still hold your interest. There are only so many times you need to get the Loremaster or Crusader achievements, after all.

Blizzard is aiming to offer heroic modes as future goals for people who complete the content on normal modes, AND a much larger proportion of the player base will complete the content on normal or LFD mode than previously. Will the player base buy it, and will people then want to spend time working on the harder modes? If so, it’s a good model for Blizz. Lots of fun things for everyone to do and see when a new patch drops, as they check out the content on LFR/ normal mode. And then when they have completed that, extra challenge on heroic. Plus the new PvP season, and any other new content/ daily quest Blizzard can drop in (Darkmoon Faire in this case.)

And all that is required for that to work is for people to really care about repeating content they have already seen in normal mode in a harder heroic mode.  Let’s see how that pans out. I’d also have concerns about how LFR will affect turnout to casual raid guilds. Again, if people are motivated by seeing the content, how keen will they be to turn up to weekly raids to see it again in a harder form?

Still, it’s undoubtedly a good deal for players who wanted to see the cool lore stuff from patch 4.3 and be done with it (assuming they don’t care about harder modes) when SWTOR is released.

[Links] Facebook games, immersion in films, other links from this week

tinker-tailor-soldier-spy-poster-gary-oldman

Happy Sunday. This is where I make a spurious link between something I have done this week and computer games, before linking to some better pieces of writing from other people.

The new film version of Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy (TTSS) was released this week in the UK. And since it’s been getting rave reviews, we went to see it. This was always going to be a tricky film to make because everyone compares it to the iconic 1970s TV series. If you read any reviews, there’s a 95% chance someone compares Gary Oldman’s performance to Alec Guiness. But truth is, there only a certain number of ways to play George Smiley and everyone thinks Guiness absolutely nailed it.

You can compare this to the challenge of making a sequel to a much loved game, or an expansion to an MMO. People want to see all the things they loved about the original, but they want them to be new and fresh too. They want the NPCs to hit all the beats they remember, but still to have a continuing storyline. TTSS performs the miracle of translating a book that had enough content to fuel a whole TV series into a single film without feeling that any key information to the plot was missing. To do this, actors, writers, cinematography and director use a phenomenal amount of economy with their acting, shots, scenes, and writing. Smiley is a hard character to pin because he’s written as someone quiet, introvert and understated, but who also feels things very strongly. If you go see the film, just watch how Gary Oldman portrays that with each single pose or shrug of his shoulders. You don’t hear the internal monologue but you know it’s there. So when he does raise his voice – for one sentence, in one scene – it’s arresting.

The other game related thought about the film is how incredibly immersive it is. For the whole duration, you are there in their world of browns, greys, beiges, cigarette smoke, and half full whisky bottles. Every detail is perfect. And none of it is thrown in your face.

I  think that as gamers, we do appreciate how important details are in making our game worlds sublime, immersive experiences. I’ve seen so many joyful blogs written about small details in game worlds that implied untold stories or thrilled the blogger. In fact, this probably plays a larger part than pure gameplay mechanics in ‘immersiveness’. But will a dev that counts only metrics of how many times each player completed each achievement ever really see the contribution that immersiveness makes to how long players WANT to spend in their game worlds? It’s not clear, but it all goes towards those nebulous notions of quality and gameworld realism which can make these games so special.

So how are Facebook Games doing these days?

An interesting milestone in facebook gaming was passed recently. Sims Social passed Farmville in numbers of daily players, which is probably good for making EA shareholders feel like buying social gaming companies was a good investment.

Of course, Zynga has moved on since Farmville and released at least two more hit games (I lose track of them all). Tobold has some praise for Adventure World, which is one of them, but notes that you will need a lot of friends or a lot of money to advance.

I’ve been trying out the open beta for Heroes of Neverwinter, which looks very promising so far and less demanding of large numbers of friends. It’s based around gathering a group of adventurers together and heading off to clear out little dungeons. Combat is turn based and grid based, reminiscent of the original Dragon Age Journeys flash game before they moved it to Facebook.

I think Neverwinter in particular shows how some Facebook games are evolving these days. It’s fun, and definitely less annoying than the typical Zynga spam-a-friend-fest. But it would be more fun for me if it wasn’t a facebook game – still, this probably means that I’m not the target audience. My style of gaming is ‘play games when you have at least 30 mins free’ and not ‘I’m on facebook anyway, might as well take a couple of mins every so often to amuse my friends with virtual game items.’

Muckbeast has a heartfelt rant about Facebook games, that I think most gamers will find sympathetic.

In the social gaming space, the industry average is that only 2% of users ever pay a single penny. When only 2% of your customers think your product is worth anything, that’s not a good sign.

If you wanted to improve your monetization rate, what would you do? Some possibilities:

  • Make the game more fun.
  • Give players more value for their money.
  • Create engaging content people are excited to pay for.

All good ideas, right? So those are the kinds of things Zynga, EA, etc. probably do to increase monetization, right?

Wrong.

Instead, they come up with incredibly annoying gimmicks like “energy systems” that interrupt your gameplay every few MINUTES and nag you to buy more energy to keep playing. We have literally looped back to pumping quarters in a machine every few minutes to play a game, folks. Ridiculous.

Thing is, most of the several squillion people who actually play these games regularly probably aren’t gamers and don’t care so much about these things. For them, sharing virtual game tat with their friends is all in a day’s social networking.

So while I like Neverwinter more about about 90% of the other Facebook games I have played, the chance of me spending money on it is zero. Therefore, I’m very much not the target audience, and who knows whether they’ll be interested in D&D style adventuring when they could be playing Sims Social instead.

Strangely enough, I did spend some money based on a social networking game this week. The game was Night Circus, written and coded by the same team who run Echo Bazaar, and I bought a copy of the book which the game was designed to advertise. (I do find some of the game text/ concepts a bit precious but I figured I was intrigued enough to pay a few pounds for a book at least.) The book is actually better than I was expecting, so recommended if you like magical romances and magic realism and stories about magicians holding mysterious duels.  The characters feel oddly stylized though, more like silhouettes than real people, but I was entertained. So that at least was a perfectly targeted piece of gamified advertising – I’m all for it ;)

More Links

Blimey, CCP actually releases some information about World of Darkness.

Mana Obscura has held a ‘smile week’ this week and has been writing about things he loves about MMOs. Here he discusses how amazing it is that they work at all, and how largescale the systems are behind them. I have always had a sense of awe about computer networks myself too, ever since a technician told me at Uni that the ethernet stayed up ‘by the grace of God.’ The more I know about ethernet, the more I suspect he had a point.

The Official WoW Magazine is dead in the water after five issues. The Ancient Gaming Noob has a copy of the email they sent to subscribers with info. Who’d have thought that computer gamers might not be all that interested in print magazines, huh?

The Rampant Coyote asks what single player RPGs can do better than MMOs. Given that we’re in the middle of some sort of conflux, I think this (and the opposite question of what MMOs do better than single player) has never been more timely.

Bronte discusses WoW raiding and problems with overtuning content, and some of the assumptions behind it. The basic idea that each tier of raiding should be more difficult/ complex than the last is fine if you started on day 1 as a Molten Core nooblet and worked your way up – less fine if you were new to Cataclysm and had to try to learn everything at once, with a bunch of players who are bored before they start and lost their patience with newbies two expansions ago.

OutDPS has some issues with the storytelling in Cataclysm (he notes that the lower level zones are often great but that the high level story is … not compelling.)

And on one last Blizzard related note, COO Thomas Tipl has stated that Blizzard are planning to release six ‘proven’ properties over the next three years. Gossip Gamers guesses that these will be 2 WoW expansions, 2 SC2 expansions, Diablo 3 … and maybe a D3 expansion. Don’t expect any more Wrath-style large WoW expansions is what I’m saying.

Rohan posts an interesting analysis of MMO players, comparing people who like fixed schedule events (like regular raid nights) to ‘transient’ players. I think there is a lot of truth in this, and the way I play is very different when I’m in a group that has fixed nights to when I just log in when I feel like it. PvD  also mulls this over and wonders if that’s the problem that the new LFR (looking for raid) PUG raid finder with its special low difficulty mode is intended to address.

Diablo 3 and the Real Money Auction House (Diablocalypse?)

Yesterday, Blizzard disdained the notion of adjusting potential customers’ expectations for an upcoming game gently in favour of dropping a PR bombshell during a press/ fansite preview day for Diablo 3. There is a lot to like about the new game, with features that I think players will enjoy, but that is now going to be eclipsed by the more attention-grabbing news.

The headline reveals were:

  • Diablo 3 will have an auction house facility via Battle.Net (players will be able to trade under game IDs and this will not require realID)
  • There will be an auction house that allows trading via in-game gold. There will also be a facility to trade via RL currency. Players will also be able to trade in-game gold on the AH for real currency (ie. sell gold to other players)
  • There will be no offline solo mode for Diablo 3, running the game will require a permanent internet connection.
  • Mods and addons will be prohibited.
The Escapist posts comments from Rob Pardo explaining why the cash AH is such a great idea. My view is that each of these things can be carefully and logically justified on its own, but taken together they may force a large change in how the typical player approaches the game.

Speaking as someone who mostly played Diablo 2 solo and offline, I understand the issue of preventing piracy but I will still miss the offline mode and the relative quietitude and non-competitiveness of playing alone. I understand that it’s still possible to play solo online, but much like soloing in an MMO, it’s harder to avoid the ubiquity of online achievements and pressure to compete or keep up with friends when you’re in a multiplayer game. (I don’t buy any connection with this and cheating, since it’s easy enough for them to keep offline characters out of the auction house or online PvP games.)

The in-game gold AH is a great idea and something that was very needed in Diablo 2, where there was a clear desire for players to be able to trade drops but no real mechanism for allowing it. Even swapping items between alts needed some quick logging in and out and leaving the item on the floor in the meanwhile. The real money AH is a sensible way to legitimise the grey market that would inevitably form for D3 goods and characters. People are still buying and selling D2 items on ebay and that game is now 11 years old (I do not know who these people are who buy the stuff from ebay – if you’re one of them feel free to explain why it’s worth it to you in comments.) However, the people who bought and sold D2 goods were a small and hardcore minority of the playerbase — this playstyle is now going to be pretty much forced on everyone else.

Scrusi comments   that most players fail to recognise opportunity cost in MMOs, I prefer to think that players are quite well able to value their own time and some of them get more enjoyment out of grinding and creating their own goods and materials than they would from ‘industrial strength crafting and trading.’ However, once real money enters the picture, I think people will become very sensitive indeed to opportunity cost.  Because any time you are not farming valuable items as fast as is humanly possible and then selling them on the auction house, you are leaving money on the table.

So while I have no doubt that many many players will be delighted by this development, I’m left feeling that I won’t much like the evolving game community that this spawns and since there’s no offline mode, I won’t have the option to opt out either. Maybe I’m the aging gamer with odd ideas from an earlier age here and the new breed of online gamers wants nothing more than to be able to buy and sell random items for cash. I’m thinking you might as well go and play poker.

The decision not to allow adds or mods follows from the previous two choices. With no offline mode there’s no room for a non-competitive/ non-real-money-selling gameplay where players might easily experiment with interesting new mods or addons. So this also makes sense, but it’s a shame in an area like PC gaming where the modding community has added so much to the player experience (including previous Blizzard games like Starcraft) in the past to rule it out completely. I don’t think PC gaming died with this announcement, but it’s a sad day.

Now I’m not saying that Blizzard announced this cash item auction house today just to wind me up because they knew I posted about the pointlessness of gold accumulation in WoW, but you have to also wonder whether they are considering developing WoW in the same way. As things stand, you’ll be able to cash in proceeds from the Diablo 3 AH to pay for a WoW subscription or other items from the cash shop. I don’t think it is likely that things will go in the other direction, but if they do, I’ll have to eat my proverbial hat and admit that the goblins were right.

And that since I’m not one, I fail at online gaming.

AoC, APB go F2P. What happens when free isn’t enough any more?

The big MMO news yesterday (apart from Blizzard nerfing their last raid tier) is that Age of Conan will be switching to a Free to Play payment model sometime this Summer. And it’s calling itself UNRATED – which most commenters are interpreting as ‘with more boobs’ (because the world might end if they showed a naked man.) Funcom claim that Howard’s Hyperborea has always been a sexy setting … whatever turns you on, I guess.

APB, the cops and robbers co-op shooter which had previously won a name for itself as shortest lasting ‘MMO’ in existence, also gets a F2P relaunch under new owners.

But I wonder if the trend towards AAA games shifting to a F2P model to get warm bodies through the door is starting to backfire. ‘Free’ isn’t as exciting a proposition as it was a year or two ago. You only have to look at the reaction to the reparation offer that Sony made after the PSN outage to see that; many gamers complaining that they weren’t happy about being offered two free games. Free on its own was not enough to make people excited, it had to be something free which they would otherwise have wanted to buy.

Even when Bioware was giving away free copies of Mass Effect 2 to DA2 owners, there was a substantial outcry that there weren’t enough DLCs included. (It was free, remember.)

So the point to take away is that free stuff is always going to be worth more to some people than others. If you don’t want an item or already have it, then free is worthless and might even be seen as an insult.

(This is a strange concept to those of us who go to conventions with the express goal of picking up as many freebies as possible, especially if they are random things we don’t really want.)

Having said that, AoC is a solid MMO if you’re bored of whatever you are currently playing and the first 20 levels in particular have a good reputation for story and gameplay. So it’s really just a case of whether you have the time and energy to bother downloading it.

Blizzard downgrading Tier 11 raids

I do think the increasing number of F2P MMOs is affecting Blizzard’s strategy. It looks to me as though they’re seeing each content patch as a new chance to win back customers (who have drifted off, possibly to F2P games when they are done with WoW’s current content), which means that it is a priority to make sure that returning customers feel that they have a chance to see the new stuff.

Nerfing older raids so that it’s easier for people to use them and gear up via PUGs plays a part in that strategy, or in other words I agree with Rohan on where they are going with this.

I vaguely remember commenting during Wrath that I felt we were being herded through the content on Blizzard’s timescale rather than our own. So it goes. TotalBiscuit has a fairly incisive summary of how he feels things have changed since TBC. If you ignore the macho “I did this content in beta when it was harder than you can even imagine” posturing, the main complaint is that the timing of progression has been taken out of the players hands. So now if you struggle on content, the smart thing to do is not spend every minute of free time trying to get into a top guild but instead just chill out, wait for the next patch and … yeah … maybe noodle some time away in a F2P game instead.

If you are hopping back into WoW, incidentally, and wondering what class to play, a poll on MMO-Champion voted by large amounts that mages had been the most favoured class this expansion so far. Availability of a legendary caster staff certainly won’t hurt that.

Thought of the Day: The pitfall of MMO storytelling

Do you ever find when reading a book that you’re more interested in some of the characters or storylines than others? When I first read Lord of the Rings I remember skipping some chapters so that I could follow the ringbearer – don’t hate me, I was 14 at the time.

I was thinking back this weekend to which parts of Cataclysm had been the most fun for me. And came to the conclusion that it had mostly been the new Forsaken starting areas and the later follow up in Andorhal. (I like the Forsaken and they did a great job on Silverpine/ Hillsbrad, what can I say?)

And it’s in the nature of Blizzard’s levelling experience that after a bit of one storyline, you’ll be whisked off to another zone to do something completely different.

If, for the sake of argument, Blizzard had decided to follow up on the Forsaken storylines in 4.2 rather than Hyjal, there’s a good chance I would have resubbed just to see what happened next. After all, does anyone hordeside NOT want to know what happened to Koltira?

And I think this is one of the pitfalls of the “fourth pillar” in MMOs. Not all stories are the same, and of all the multiple stories going on in a world as big as an MMO, not all of them are interesting to all players. There is a question that has been doing the rounds for years about whether all players should be able to see all content. But the truth is that most of them would be perfectly happy if there was enough content that they cared about to keep them busy. If I get to chill with my NPC forsaken colleagues and their politics, I probably don’t care what the hardcore raiders are doing in the firelands. Crack on guys, give Ragnaros hell, and enjoy those wipes – I’m busy here…

Providing storylines for everyone’s taste in every patch would be a crazy amount of effort to expect. But if story is one of your primary draws, then you will also have to expect people to only show up when you’re telling a story they want to hear. Now the advantage of a sandbox where people have more freedom to tell their own stories comes a bit clearer.

In which Blizzard figure out how to charge social players more

Always the contrarians, Blizzard announced plans yesterday to charge players more for the ability to group with people on their realID list who play on other servers.

The idea, as I understand it, is that the person who has paid for the service would be able to form LFD groups out of their own realID friend list (you already have the ability to chat to them while playing).

Basically, you could reap the benefits of LFG without ‘having’ to group with the great unwashed.

Since people who actually form their own groups are likely to be the more social players anyway, Blizzard effectively will be going the opposite way from Valve and charging the people who most want and are able to build social networks for their friends. I am sure people will pay for this. But clearly it is cheaper to just be friends with someone who pays for the service and hang on their coat tails, assuming you like the groups they form.

Blizzard subs fall, and voting with your feet

News at the Activision investor call yesterday (yes it’s that time of the year) was that WoW subscriptions have dropped by around 600,000 since Cataclysm launched.

Kotaku comment that this means numbers are dropping towards pre-Wrath levels, which is an odd way of putting things since they still have a fair way to go before that. The Ancient Gaming Noob puts it better, as a 5% drop since Cataclysm launched.

This will not surprise any player who has been paying attention – I think the playerbase is well aware that many players have been getting bored with the new expansion relatively quickly. And although it’s tempting to say “yes but 11.4 million players are still there”, that’s probably not a constant population so much as a churn anyway.

But it’s interesting to imagine that the vast bulk of WoW subs are stable, with a swing population of 4-600k (easily enough to populate another successful MMO or two when they get bored of WoW). I wonder if they still count as WoW tourists if WoW is the game they’re getting bored with?

Activision’s response is that they will bring more frequent content updates to WoW, so both people who left because they ran out of content and current players who find they’ve run out of things to do should be pleased with that. It’s interesting to wonder how far this is a response to Rift’s frequent updates also but I’m sure that paying players voting with their feet is a larger influence.

In any case, expect subs to drop further over the summer because .. well … it’s warm out (at least in the northern hemisphere).

Changing patterns of MMO playing

I think the patterns in which people play MMOs are changing. With a larger choice of F2P games, as well as older AAA games offering new updates and content, there’s an increasing slice of the playerbase who will be more game-nomadic and less likely to set down roots in a single game for long periods of time.

This probably won’t affect WoW for a long time, they’re enough of their own thing to be in a different category altogether. And the majority of their player base has little interest in other MMOs. But people who do want to drift in and out and try different things will be wondering what they get for their sub.

And once you have a tooled up character in any game, it’s much easier to hop back in when a new and interesting content update comes along. (eg. I hadn’t played LOTRO for awhile but went back for Enedwaith.) So Activision’s comments about more frequent content updates show that they’re recognising this direct link between new content patches and players returning to the game. I’m sure they knew this anyway but this time they’ve explicitly stated it.

It’ll be interesting to see how they try to balance up attracting ex-players to return with keeping existing players from getting bored and leaving.

Nerfing Heroics: Clocks go forwards early for Blizzard

So today (tomorrow for the EU) sees the next big patch of the Cataclysm era. Patch notes are here.

There is a massive amount of class tweaking, and all raiders will be happy to hear that the components for flasks have been toned down. There are further tweaks to Tol Barad, which I’ve written about previously.

And the big news this week is that Blizzard are also planning to make random heroics more appealing by adding an extra buff to damage/ healing/ stamina if you zone in with random members in the group. This is similar in spirit to the Icecrown Citadel buff, which was increased over time in that raid instance. The idea being that the hardcore would power through the raid with no buff and the increasing buff over weeks would gradually make the instance more accessible to the rest of us.

Also, there is supposed to be a small buff for random heroics, which ran at 5% in Wrath. That apparently has never been working in Cataclysm, which is one minor reason that the instances may have felt harder.

I think the Icecrown Citadel buff, whilst initially viewed with suspicion, actually worked quite well and people were fairly happy with it. The hardcore had their bragging rights and more casual raiders got to finish the instance more slowly. Everyone’s happy, right?

And yet there’s quite a big outcry about the forthcoming heroic buff. I think it makes more sense if you imagine what heroics were like towards the end of Wrath. They were popular. They were easy enough to run smoothly, if only because the emblem gear given out was so much higher level than the actual instances themselves. High end raiders and new 80s alike queued up in randoms and it all seemed to work fairly well. People did complain that they were too easy but they also ran them.

Compare that with now. Heroics are longer, contain more trash, and random groups are as likely to fail as to succeed. The rewards they give are no better than drop in raid instances. Queues are fairly long for dps because tanks (in particular) don’t seem to be queueing for randoms – I know I certainly don’t. And they’re long enough that doing one daily is likely to be a drag. They’re fun in organised groups. No fun in randoms unless you get lucky (I’ve had good random groups, usually early in the morning.)

Ghostcrawler commented, on the buff:

in general, Heroic dungeons are of appropriate difficulty for organized groups, but just brutal on Dungeon Finder groups. Players wonder, and rightly so, why Dungeon Finder supports Cataclysm Heroic dungeons at all when the chance of success is so low.

To my mind, effectively what Blizzard are trying to do is turn the clocks forwards. We all know that in a few months time, after the next big content patch when all the badge gear gets upgraded, heroics will be much easier after everyone is overgeared. That’s the same effect this buff will have. So if you had decided to not bother with heroics until that happened, you don’t have to wait any longer.

The only big surprise is that they’ve decided to give a buff of up to 15% (if you have 3 random people in your group) which is a huge boost over the old 5% heroic random buff. We’ll see whether it is enough.

In which Blizzard continues to flog the dead horse of Tol Barad

After regaling us with a dev blog assuring all and sundry that Tol Barad was working exactly as expected (did anyone believe this? thought not) we’re seeing the next round of tweaks coming through with the next patch.

Mumper explained (in the link above) that the design goal was to make it more difficult for the attackers, as an extra incentive for defenders to hang onto it. In practice, there are three keeps in the zone which can be captured. Attackers need to capture all three of them to win. Defenders just have to stop them doing so.

The best defensive strategy is just to follow the attackers around, so after any point is won and the main attack force has moved to the next point, you send your defenders in to retake it. That way instead of the defenders being forced to defend more than one spot, it’s the attackers who struggle to hold existing captures while trying to take the next one.

Anyhow, here are the changes proposed for the next patch

PvP
Tol Barad

  • Attacking forces will receive a 200% capture speed bonus when they control 2 keeps.
  • Defending forces will receive a 200% capture speed bonus when they control all 3 keeps.
  • Daily quest creatures, herbs, minerals, etc. will only spawn when Tol Barad is in the quest phase between battles. There will be 5-minute and 1-minute warnings before the quest phase ends. The quest phase ends 15 minutes before the battle for Tol Barad begins and queuing is made available. At that time any players in the daily micro dungeons will be ported just outside. This does not apply to Tol Barad Peninsula or the daily quests there.

I have no idea where they are going with this.

The first change will not stop the tactic of following the attackers around, if defenders do this, it’s not going to make it any easier for the attackers to hold two keeps and still have a force on the third.  And what does it even mean that defenders get a capture bonus if they already control all three keeps? (hint: if they control all 3 keeps there’s nothing left to capture.)

But it is amusing that you can’t do dailies while the battle is on :)

Funny thing is, I don’t even hate Tol Barad. I like the general ‘capture three points’ mechanic. I liked it in Warhammer (Nordenwatch) and I like it in Arathi – and both of those battlegrounds play out better than Tol Barad.

Speaking of Warhammer – possibility of F2P

I have heard rumours lately that Mythic is (finally) considering converting WAR to F2P. If they do this, I heartily recommend it to PvP fans as the lower level (tier 1-3) PvP was always very good fun, and I’d certainly be tempted to go back for a while.