Gaming News: Google App Store, Zynga ties the knot with Facebook, Aion server mergers, Blizzcon, DS to overtake PS2 in sales

Google shows off some longer term plans

At the I/O developer conference in San Francisco this week, Google announced their plans to launch an online web app store (for Chrome and Chrome OS). Undoubtedly games will feature heavily on the list, and Plants v Zombies and Lego Star Wars (are there any platforms on which those don’t run?) have already been announced.

Possibly of even more interest, Unity Technologies also announced that their 3D engine will run natively in Chrome – that is to say, with no  plugin. At any rate, marketing speak aside, that means that unity based games will run smoothly and quickly in Chrome. It’s certainly good news for Unity developers, and that’s good news for gamers also.

Is Chrome shaping up to be the gamer’s browser of choice? Google certainly hope so.

And in another big announcement, Google introduced an open source royalty free video format, WebM. It will be included as part of HTML5 and, of course, will be supported by YouTube. Adobe plan to build support for the codec into Flash as well.

Farmville Devs sign a 5 year deal with Facebook

A week can be such a long time in gaming politics. Last week everyone was speculating that Zynga planned to dump Facebook and go it alone (as if!) and this week brings the announcement that actually the two companies have signed some sort of cooperation deal for the next 5 years.

Facebook’s plans to force all app developers to use their new facebook credit currency for RMT, so that Facebook can take a cut,  is hardly going to be welcomed by the developers. But we can only speculate about whether Zynga was forced to the table (because they need Facebook more than vice versa), or whether they held the platform owner to a hard bargained deal.

In any case, all is smiles and flowers in the Farmville world. And expect to see facebook credits making a very real bid to become the global internet RMT transaction currency of choice. Scared yet? Well, you can always install a Farmville gamebar on your browser and let Zynga keep tabs on everything that you ever do online …

Playdom buy Acclaim, Perfectworld buys a stake in Runic

There are a couple of company related announcements. Playdom, the social gaming publisher, has acquired Acclaim. Acclaim have developed and run several F2P MMOs so it will be interesting to see what Playdom plans to do with them. I remember liking Chronicles of Spellbourne when I tried it, so let’s hope this leads to good things.

In other news, Runic Games announced that Torchlight had sold 500k copies worldwide since it’s release. Which is excellent for any game. And Perfect World Entertainment (a Chinese MMO Publisher) has acquired a majority stake in the company. We know that Runic had mentioned a MMO version of Torchlight, could Perfect World be the partner to help bring it to market?

Aion Announced Server Mergers

Aion producer released a community letter, with lots of information about forthcoming plans. They’re offering character customisation and transfer options, there are new patches coming soon and information about what’s going on with the Korean patches also even further out.

But it is the server merges that will attract most of the attention. Usually associated with a drop in population, merging servers is a way to bolster existing servers. However, it’s never really been a good sign for the health of a game.

In the same week, Everquest also announced server mergers … but they’ve been running for 10 years, as opposed to less than one.

Blizzcon Tickets to go on Sale on June 2nd and 5th

Put your lucky socks on if you want to snag a ticket to Blizzcon, even at the eye-popping price of $150 they’re bound to sell out immediately. The convention itself will take place on Oct 22/23 in Anaheim and the smart money says that Blizzard will announce their next gen MMO there. The unsmart money (ie. me) is hoping they’ll at least announce a date for Diablo 3.

In other Blizzard related news, they’re trialling a new premium service for WoW in which subscribers who pay an extra $3 per month can access the auction house remotely either from the web or from iDevices. They’re also disabling a naughty addon which made hard raid encounters much easier by allowing you to draw on other people’s screens. I never used it myself, but it does show that the lines between which addon is considered ok and which is forcibly disabled can be very unclear.

Blizzard also resolved their legal issues in Korea by agreeing to everything the Korean Govt asked for, and censoring blood, swearing and cigarettes from Star Craft 2. I imagine there will still be plenty of good, wholesome, old-fashioned genocide though. And apparently the corruption scandal in Korea’s professional Star Craft scene is looking worse the more it gets investigated.

DS to Become Biggest Selling Console of All Time

I love my DS, and it was my faithful companion on many long train journeys to and from my father’s flat when he was ill last year. So I find it heart warming to report that DS sales are likely to overtake those of the PS2 later this year.

It’s just a great little console, and the games have been pitched absolutely perfectly at a puzzle loving, brain training older audience, as well as the usual crop of pokemon (of which I still need to buy the latest sometime) and other kid pleasers. This little console has done a lot to open up the gaming market, and in my opinion, Nintendo deseves all the sales that it gets.


5 Challenges for Cataclysm

Chris at Game by Night is dubious about whether Cataclysm can really keep Warcraft players occupied for another two years (the average time between WoW expansions up till now). Yes, there are new races and new levelling content, but once people have worked up their new alts … what then?

In many ways, the most surprising thing about Cataclysm is how little we have heard about it. It’s going to be released this year, but when? Is it in beta yet? Where are the screenshots or artists impressions of the new zones? Maybe a picture of a well known zone seen from a flying mount? How about some more information about the dance studio (i.e. ability to choreograph your own dances) which was mentioned at Blizzcon?

Just for comparison, the first beta leaks from Wrath were in April ‘08, and the expansion was released in November of that year. If Cataclysm is aiming for a release before Q4, we should start hearing more about it very soon. The longer they delay, the more likely that the expansion won’t go live until the end of the year.

Aside from that, there is a question of what exactly it really would take to keep WoW players occupied for another two years.

For raiders, I’m sure Blizzard can dole out the raid content at the same rate they have been through Wrath. For alt-fans, an old worlde revamp, new races, and 5 new zones will certainly keep people busy for awhile. Blizzard have also mentioned reworking some of the old dungeons as high level heroics – if they did that to all of them in addition to any new instances then that’s a lot of instanced content also. Plus the rated battlegrounds, which I suspect will be one of the really big features in practice.

So, same old same old. More zones, more dungeons, more races, more battlegrounds. But is that enough? And if not, what exactly would be enough?

Here’s the five main challenges I think the expansion will face.

  1. Rated Battlegrounds. How well will these take off? If this plan works, then it will throw a nice chunk of both content and challenge at raid guilds who are bored of running the same raid four times a week. Plus should be fun for the more casual guilds too. They will need to find a way for people to opt out of the ratings if they want to go run a random battleground or else the whole casual friendly, solo friendly nature of bg PvP will be lost.
  2. People who can’t raid or don’t want to raid. Wrath opened up WoW raiding to more people than ever before. Some will be hooked and raring to go on Cataclysm raids. But what about the people who decided that actually it isn’t for them? It may be that some form of cross-server LFR tool will make raids a fun, casual friendly option. But as I’ve said before, I don’t think a regular tuned 10/25 man raid would work for a cross server PUG.
  3. Hardcore disengagement. Hardcore raiders have worked within the new hard mode /normal mode framework for raid instances. But how much do they actually enjoy it? Do they want to sign up for another expansion of more of the same? More working their guts out to beat hardmodes, when the majority of the player base just doesn’t care any more and isn’t especially impressed because they are happy with their normal modes and get to see the same fights anyway. How many will decide that it’s just not worth it?
  4. Levelling through Outland and Northrend. Now, Outland and Northrend both offer very cool and fun levelling experiences. But how are players going to feel when they leave the revamped old world and have to chug through 20 levels of unchanged content before they get to the new Azeroth zones? How many of those new alts will actually make it to endgame?
  5. Class Balance and Hybrid Vigor. Wrath has seen hybrids winding up with a good deal of in game privilege. They get the extra flexibility of multiple roles, at very little cost (apart from the extra time and effort to gear up). We know that Paladins and Druids (and Death Knights, natch) have all been gaining in popularity – last armoury survey showed that over 15% of all level 80s were paladins. I’d expect this effect to become even more marked as more people create new alts in Cataclysm. Druids will get vastly more popular because … worgen druids. Plus of course, a class talent revamp for all classes could unsettle everything.

The big problem of course is boredom. People who are bored of the game are not going to be enthralled by more of the same, and Blizzard has shown no signs yet that Cataclysm will include anything other than more of the same.

And really, they have to go with ‘more of the same’ for the players who aren’t yet bored – plus they will want to increasingly save their new ideas for the unannounced MMO that is yet to come. This isn’t to say that WoW is being short-changed, but that the original design might just not be welcoming to some of the new things designers want to do.

Anyway, for what it’s worth, I think they will at some point figure out how to make fun cross server PUG raids. I think the rated battlegrounds will be wildly successful, more than most people are expecting.

I think that the new expansion will struggle to hold a lot of existing endgame player’s attention for more than a few months. This happens anyway with any new expansion, but the drift will be faster than ever, and it won’t depend on new games coming out. But remember, a lot of new or returning players will be coming back to start again with Cataclysm. They won’t all be bored yet. They will enjoy the more accessible instancing and raid content. Blizzard is banking on the new wave replacing the old. Time will tell if they are right.

Cataclysm! Did the earth move for you?

So the leaks were all true. How about that then?

New races, massive revamp of most of Azeroth and the levelling game, flying, underwater mounts and city, new raid instances to fill out some of the existing ‘blank spots’ in the lore.  The official Cataclysm site is up and can fill you in on specifics as announced at Blizzcon.

In addition, the team have plans to streamline existing game mechanics in the new expansion. Some stats will be removed (goodbye armour penetration, you will not be missed because almost no one really understood what you did), others will become secondary stats (eg. no more spellpower, instead it will be based on your int). So the intention is to make the stats simpler and easier to understand. No doubt some people will interpret this as dumbing down – because the alternative is admitting that the current system is obfuscated and unnecessarily complex.

In practice, what we’re practically getting is WoW2. And I know I’m looking forwards to levelling new alts from scratch with my friends with a whole new altered world to explore. I’m also awed by Blizzard’s sheer audacity in being willing to take on those sort of wholesale changes.

I’m an ideas person myself. If I am drawn in by the vision, I’ll stay for the ride. They blew me away with Wrath even though my initial reaction to the announcement was meh. Can they do it again? We’ll have to wait and see. While it’s fun to revamp an old instance to celebrate an anniversary, I’m quite anti-excited about the prospect of Heroic Maraudon.

It’s one thing to get all excited in the middle of Blizzcon but let’s see how people feel about this one in a month or two when they’ve had time to reflect.

How not to be a hater

It’s also inevitable that lots of bloggers will take the opportunity to rag on WoW, if only because it distracts players from other games.

Syncaine gets in first with a sarcastic sideswipe which has some salient comments but shows mostly that he’s missed the point about the revamp of old zones. An old zone can totally be new content if the graphics and quests are redone (what is a new zone after all anyway?) But one note about Barrens Chat; is he so sure that chat in his game of choice is better? Because you can’t entirely blame the zone for that.

Still, at the end of the day, I’d like it for everyone to get this excited about future updates to their favourite games. You need a certain type of miserable temperament to be so keen to jump in and ruin the party now. How about just letting people enjoy the hype and enthusiasm?

He does, however, make an interesting point with the post title. Which is the greatest expansion of all time? (and why?) Is it one that totally mixes up the gameplay? Is it one that offers ‘more of the same’ but in a really high quality way? Does it further the story? Is it one that is loved by the players instantly, or maybe it takes longer to get into but has more longterm appeal?

Or maybe it’s just the one that sells the most boxes. TBC and Wrath both broke sales records when they were released. Would anyone care to bet against Blizzard on this one too?

The problem of old content, and is recycling the answer?

Anyone else love gossip and speculating about games you know nothing about? Yeah, me too. I was pondering the next WoW expansion a few weeks ago and mentioned in passing the notion that they might come totally out of left field and rework old Azeroth in its entirety. Except I didn’t really think it was a serious option.

I’m still not convinced about the latest Cataclysm leaks, although we’ll know more very soon since Blizzcon is this weekend. Me, I suspect some of the leaks will turn out to be true (new race/class combos might be a smart way of luring people into rerolling without actually having to generate any extra content). I’m still dubious about the sheer amount of work that would be involved in redoing everything in vanilla WoW.

But one thing is for sure, people have reacted with excitement about the possibility of revisiting their favourite old zones and instances in an up to date 2010 edition. Even the one raid boss who we know for sure is being revamped, Onyxia, has stirred plenty of interest.

The Problem of Old Content

In MMOs I have played, PvE content has a definite life cycle.

  1. It is new and a bit buggy. People flock to do it. They abandon the old zones they used to hang out in.
  2. Bugs are ironed out, content is better tuned. People complain about nerfs. More people flock to do it.
  3. Content becomes old hat. It stays popular if it is either fun, required, or offers good rewards for time put in.
  4. New content is patched in, go to #1.
  5. (Old content stays in the game, but no one goes there any more. It becomes part of the game’s mythology. Old players tell new ones about what things were like ‘back in the day’ when the old zones were busy. New players shrug and get on with the new stuff.)

We see this particularly with new expansions in games like WoW. The expansion is intended to reset the endgame, so the old endgame content is meant to be mostly abandoned. There are no relevant challenges or rewards there any more.

Even if the old instances could get revamped a bit, it doesn’t solve the problem that a lot of players are bored with them anyway and just don’t want to go back. So you can easily end up with vast areas in the game where no one ever goes. Perhaps the occasional exploring newbie will stumble into it, unaware that it’s not on the optimal levelling path.

Now aside from the fact that it’s quite atmospheric to have empty zones as well as full ones, this always feels a bit sad. And while there are ways to keep the old zones busy, they’re just not as exciting for players as a constant stream of new content.

But … could a cataclysm in which every old zone got a total revamp — new graphics, new quests, new updated storyline — could that be the way to make everything old seem new again? Maybe it could.

Aside from the fearsome amount of work (yeah I’m still not convinced), what better way to lure back old players who had quit than the offer of cool fun things to do in the zones which they remember? And that’s exactly the audience Blizzard needs to be looking for at the moment. To add some extra charm, reviving 5-year old content in this way is far enough in the past that even old players who ran it to exhaustion might be over the boredom and ready to go check it out again. So maybe, just maybe, the leaks are on the money…