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.)

What do you expect to get for your monthly subscription?

It’s hard to put a value on content, but the expectations of the MMO community have changed over the past few years. Whereas once, access to the virtual world with all its trappings was considered worth the price of entry, we now expect a stream of additional content patches to justify the monthly fees.

Or do we?

Champions Online has put the cat among the pigeons by announcing a paid mega-adventure pack, Vibora Bay,  (sounds similar to the sorts of big content patches we get in WoW). The player base is less than thrilled. There’s a sense that this business model is fine in a free to play game like DDO where you expect to pay for extra content, but a lot of players expect that a monthly sub should include this type of thing.

Perhaps it is time for MMO publishers to be more up front about exactly what you do get for your monthly fee, because games that do include content patches are definitely looking like better value.  And when you can pick up a cool little game like Psychonauts for £1 off Steam in the sale (last day: today), just how much should you expect anyway for your £10 pcm?

Is Champions Online on the ropes?

Eric@Elder Game reckons that CO has about a month to determine whether or not it will be able to survive for a couple of years or not. (It’s worth reading his post partly because he’s an insightful writer with some industry inside perspective but also because this one has a funny story about a profanity filter.)

I’m not a great fan of superheroes but even so, I had noticed that I’ve heard very little about CO in the blogosphere recently. There was an upsurge of interest when the game launched, with quite a few people picking up lifetime subscriptions and explaining what they enjoyed about the game. But I haven’t heard much recently. I’d assumed that the people who played were settling down quietly to do just that, but Eric has a different view.

We know that CO was not a huge hit. We also knew that Cryptic were planning to launch a second AAA MMO within a few months – Star Trek Online, which is a much much bigger IP. Eric wonders if this will put more pressure on the CO team within the company.

This is very bad news for Champions players. Champions has been relegated to the role of red-headed stepchild… it’s that crappy failure of a game that keeps stealing resources from Star Trek Online, which is the game that’s going to save the company.

But here’s the thing. There are certainly publishers who run several successful MMOs at once — mostly free to play type games like Aeria Games, or social games like Zynga (creators of Farmville, Mafia Wars, etc). But these are much less demanding games (in terms of artwork, music, coding support) than the lush top of the line subscription MMOs that Cryptic is producing.

Will they be able to sustain both CO and STO without one game losing out in the long run? Because if one does lose, it won’t be Star Trek. How many people who took out lifetime subs for CO are still happy with their purchase, I wonder.

Links, Reviews, Roundups

Last week was a first for me with the blog. First time I’ve written a whole week of blog posts in advance and pre-scheduled them, because I was off visiting Arb (not that I didn’t have net access, we are civilised folks after all).

I’m not sure how other bloggers organise their writing but I usually note down ideas when I have them and write one up either the evening before or early in the morning. So that was my brief flirtation with being organised, I promise it won’t happen again :) And if I was a bit slower with replies then that’s why.

So Champions Online and Aion have been out for about a month now. How are people finding them?

Melf has a great Aion review up at Word of Shadow. I prefer reviews where people list both good and bad things about the game, especially when the reviewer basically liked the game, because that means they probably ‘got’ whatever it is supposed to be about and can hopefully explain it to readers. Evizaer also had a look at Aion and gave it a straight no.

Girl Unplugged posts a Champions Online review, again this is a review from someone who likes the game and can explain why.  And Syp has a solid point by point comparison between CO and City of Heroes. I do find it interesting that people who have bought a lifetime subscription are much more likely to take a longterm view of a game – ie. Oh it’s a bit rough now but it’ll be great in a year’s time. If I’d paid $200 up front, I don’t think I’d be too thrilled about having to wait a year for greatness.

And still on the superhero theme, I have a basic disagreement with Muckbeast in the comments on his post about attracting women gamers, about whether the superhero genre is more popular with women than fantasy or sci-fi. (Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Twilight … I’m just sayin’.)

Other Stuff to Read: Twelve of the Best

  1. Make Your Own Zombie Game – the zombie game experience gives you a chance to throw in $10 and participate in some game design. I’ll be curious to see what they come up with.
  2. Wolfshead explains why scaling content should be our future! Why do we have to stick to group and raid sizes that are predetermined? Couldn’t the content just scale, like it does in CoH or Diablo?
  3. tor.com is a blog that deserves a spot on any geek’s newsreader. This month is Steampunk month and they post a Steampunk 101 guide with an incredible shot at the bottom of a steampunked up laptop that has instantly become my object of desire.
  4. Jaye at Journeys with Jaye explains why his exercise bike is an MMO and the scary thing is … he isn’t entirely kidding. Edited to add: Mea Culpa and sorry Jaye for getting the gender wrong, that should read SHE.
  5. Jormundgard tries to psychoanalyse Garrosh Hellscream and explains why he’s disappointed with how that character has been developed.
  6. Andrew Doull finds Puzzlequest quite traumatic and a lot of his reactions could apply equally to any quest based game. What does it mean if we’ll go commit (virtual) genocide just because an NPC in a position of authority told us to do it?
  7. And although this may possibly be the least subtle link between links ever, I thought it was absolutely fascinating that The Anne Frank House were able to post up an actual video of Anne Frank on youtube this week. This is (obviously) from before the family went into hiding.
  8. Keen writes a sharp, well observed post asking whether MMOs are being designed for too many players these days. And what do you lose when you decide to go for the mainstream?
  9. And two thematically related posts: Tobold wonders how people like their games to be paced – if it’s all excitement all of the time then there’s never any downtime in which to socialise after all. And Andrew@Of Tooth and Claw asks how people feel about difficulty in games, and particularly about ‘cheating’ to sidestep the difficulty if it is getting in the way.
  10. Hudson splits the CO community into two parts, conceptualists who try to stay true to a character concept and minmaxers who design their character concept around whichever powers work best at the time. Which are you?
  11. Larisa wonders if it’s OK to apply to another guild while you are still guilded. After all, it’s OK to apply for new jobs while you’re still employed (at least until your employer finds out).
  12. And another tor.com link, this time to a fantastic report on a reading and Q&A session with Michael Chabon (another of my favourite ever living authors) who is a dyed in the wool geek and proud of it. I’ll end with a quote from him:

… he goes on to describe the way fandom binds people together:

“For in playing, or writing, or drawing, or simply talking oneself deep into the world of a popular artwork that invites the regard of the amateur, the fan, one is seeking above all to connect, not only with the world of the show, comic book, or film, but with the encircling, embracing metaworld of all those who love it as much as you do.”

Saturday Links: Interesting Reading

  1. There’s no drama like RP drama. So when players decided to select one Aion server as their unofficial RP home it was guaranteed to become a dramafest, right? Of course right. Aionic Thoughts is at ground zero to report.
  2. Dickie@Rainbow MMO wonders if the lifetime subscription scheme is viable in the long run. Is it possible that LOTRO just has too many lifetime subs, meaning they’re going to have to find more ways to add extra charges?
  3. Is Champions Online actually a step backwards from City of Heroes? Trembling Hand thinks so, at least when it comes to teaming up.
  4. Hawley (yay, he’s back!) writes about his experience with leaving his raid community and joining another one. But the invite came before the quit, and suddenly his ‘casual’ raid group were acting as though he was “ worse than Hitler” for abandoning ship.
  5. wow.com is one of many sites that reports on a study showing that playing in a guild actually lowers your stress. I’d rephrase that as ‘playing with friends’ lowers your stress, or ‘interacting with a friendly  and supportive community’ which might rule some guilds out from the start.
  6. Green Armadillo notices how little shelf space in games shops is given over to PC games these days (I’ve noticed that here also), and asks if this is the end of retail PC gaming and what that might mean.
  7. Tamarind tells a heartwarming story of a guy in a sissy robe and the little pet that found its way home. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry. Even I was in tears by the end.
  8. Brian Crecente at Kotaku writes a thoughtful piece using Beatles Rock Band as a starting point to wonder about the use of reality in games, and whether designers have a responsibility to represent reality wisely.
  9. Klepsacovic wonders how you can reward exploration in games without punishing non exploration. He also reminisces about some of WoW’s less obviously located quests. (For me, that water elemental guy who gave the MC quests just took the biscuit.)
  10. Oakstout was chatting in CO about his favourite abilities and found himself inundated with theorycraft and advice about what he should take instead. Does theorycrafting make us happier? Can we have too much information?

A Warhammer Special

Warhammer Online reached its first anniversary this week.

Jeff Hickman spoke at GDC about what he thought were Warhammer’s three biggest mistakes. He puts a lot of it down to PvE being too easy, which wouldn’t even have made my top ten, to be honest. But I do think it shows that without any ‘community’ specialists on the team, they really don’t know why their community didn’t gel. I guess blaming PvE is as good a way to go as any.

Syncaine notes pithily that you can’t blame PvE for the failure of a game that was all about RvR.

Syp chimes in with his comments and suggestions for three major mistakes, which seems nearer the mark to me. He also lists his 10 great successes for Warhammer. Dude, by the time you include “Um, Snafzg is playing it”, you are really reaching :) Also, he missed out the red blobs of awesome, the friendly/unfriendly targets that were beloved of all healers, being able to pour boiling oil onto people’s heads, and scenarios. Apart from that, it’s a good read!

In any case, it’s a game with which I had a lot of fun and my personal view is that their biggest mistake was not trying to go for a single virtual server (a la champions online). I don’t think they realised how many players they’d need active to keep all their PvP zones, PQs, and PvE instances busy.

I was going to use the title “Happy Birthday (WAR is over)” which tied in neatly with both Warhammer and The Beatles, but truth is, I hope very much that WAR is not over. I had a lot of fun with it and I hope that Mythic are plotting even now about how to lure people back from Aion (or grab the Aion tourists in a month or two when they’re disillusioned with it.)

Also, Shana Tovah, mateys.

Why Superhero MMOs have failed us

I’m disappointed in so called super hero MMOs.

It isn’t because I hate superheroes. I used to read X-Men religiously as a teenager and I bought all the Sandman comics as they came out. I love Watchmen and V for Vendetta, and my husband even made me read through his old copies of Luther Arkwright before we got married (I think he wanted to be sure that I wouldn’t embarrass him in front of his friends by not knowing the dialogue off by heart.) I have original copies of The Crow. And, big admission, I also collected all the Marvel Secret Wars comics.

But somehow all the superhero MMOs  model the dull and more tedious parts of the superhero experience, and not the things I loved.

See, the basic problem is that superhero comics are very squarely all about the main character. S/he is pasted up on the cover and takes front and centre of every story all of the time. Writers do use this as a way to discuss what it means to be a hero, and particularly what it means to be that specific hero. You may not get vast amounts of character development but when you do, it’s a major huge plot point. The story, the villains, the drama, the setbacks and how they are overcome — these things should be front and centre of the superhero experience.

Things you can do in a superhero MMO:

  • Design a cool costume and write a backstory that is largely irrelevant
  • fight random baddies
  • quest

Things you cannot do:

  • Have a dependent NPC who gets into trouble and needs to be saved a lot
  • Run a story where you start by fighting with another superhero and then team up with them (unless you pre-arrange it with another player and duel them to fake out the fighting)
  • Quests that tell personalised stories about what it means to be a superhero (note: fighting hellions in Perez Park does not count)
  • Soap Opera style supergroups.
  • Have a mentor who gets intro trouble and needs to be saved a lot.
  • Have a secret identity. Worry about whether it gets discovered. Need to balance the needs of the secret identity with the needs of the superhero persona.
  • Have a gearing up sequence (like in Iron Man)
  • Play out your backstory
  • Get captured by a supervillain and have to escape a deathtrap

If I can’t show what being superhuman means to my character then what is the point? If I can’t show the tension between the superhero role and the ‘real life’ role then all that is left is flying around (which is cool) and fighting bunches of mobs that might as well be the MMO standard pig for all they mean to me.

A MMO is more like a LARP – no player is particularly special. They’re all average Joe/Jane characters getting on with their lives. But it isn’t even a simulation of what it might be like to live in a city full of superheroes. The characters never clash over territory, never both jump into the same fight, suffer mistaken identities, and fight each other by mistake. They never get into trouble with the cops for acting like vigilantes. So even as a less personal simulation of a city full of supers, the games don’t work.

Maybe they work as small scale tactical fighting games. Maybe the fluff and costumes and travel powers is enough to keep people amused and they can tell their own stories in-between the gaps. But how is that really different from kill ten rats? It seems to me like such a wasted opportunity that CO didn’t try to do something just a bit different.

Lifetime and 6 Month Subscriptions to Champions Online are Back!

Cryptic caused a stir earlier this week when they announced that the tempting subscription deals offered to early adopters for Champions Online were sold out. The playerbase was consternated and confused. On the one hand they’d been told that the subscriptions would be available until August 31st, and on the other that they were limited. And since the open beta only started a couple of days ago, that left very little time for people who hadn’t been in the closed beta to get a feel for the game and decide whether they wanted to spring for the special deals.

All over the internet, and especially on the CO boards, a thousand voices cried out. And Cryptic listened — the lifetime and 6 month subscription offers are back until August 31st, and they’re unlimited this time. Good luck to anyone who wasn’t able to pick one up before but still wants to buy, and Syp has some tips for new players to CO to get you started.

I wonder if they’ll sell more of the subscriptions by introducing an arbitrary scarcity, inciting a panic, and then opening the offer again … for 3 days only.

Dust: the shape of things to come?

Oh CCP, how could you break my heart by having a huge announcement yesterday and not mentioning Vampire even once?

*sob*

But the company that has gained a reputation for out of the box thinking about MMOs may be about to score another winner. Dust is going to be a sci-fi themed planetside FPS, set in the EVE universe, running on consoles, and there will be some kind of interface with EVE Online. Battles fought in Dust will affect the geopolitical landscape in EVE. EVE corps will be able to hire squads of mercenaries in Dust to stake corporate claims on planets — in effect they’ll be supporting player driven quests. And still, the FPS console fans will be playing their FPS console game and the world of spreadsheet-craft MMO fans will be playing their MMO. At least that’s the theory.

Now I find this to be a really exciting concept. I’m not interested in FPS but that’s not the point here. The idea of creating a new aspect to an MMO and implementing it as a fully featured new game on a different platform but letting the two games interface is answering questions that I didn’t even knew I had. Most of all, it’s easy to understand the vision. It’s ambitious, but it is easy to see how this expands the game for the MMO players (adding a whole new feature of managing mercs) as well as for the FPS (having battles tie in to a persistent universe and possibly being paid in game for the privilege).

Pete@Dragonchasers has a perfectly formed rant at a comment I made, which was that this kind of vision made games like Aion and Champions Online look like tired retreads. This is not to say that they might not be great games — I played the Aion beta and liked it a lot. I’m not currently in the mindset for that kind of PvP but I certainly enjoyed similar setups in other games I’ve played, and I have no qualms about saying that if you’re looking for a gorgeous WoW-esque game with a PvP focus, give it a shot. CO simply disappoints me because I don’t think that the levelling/ questing game design really suits superheroes and I was hoping to see a bit more vision in the design (I especially think it’s important for superheroes to be tied in deeply to the city where they live) — but there’s no reason for it not to be a perfectly fun game. Although I am puzzled that I haven’t read many beta reports where people were getting more excited about it, there’s usually a bit more buzz than this.

However, I disagree with his point that MMOs are set in stone and that it’s a bad thing to get excited about new innovations and bored by unimaginitive implementations. Questing was not a bedrock of MMOs until WoW came out. Nor was instancing. Stats and Stat-based actions don’t seem to be a huge part of MMOs like CoH and EVE. Auction houses also don’t have a long history in the genre.

So no. The core of an MMO is playing a character in a large persistent world with lots of other players in it. The rest is negotiable and if it changes then it can get better. But is it fair to complain that a game is too like WoW? Or not similar enough? It certainly is, as long as you give your reasoning.

MMOs are large complex beasts. Only the individual player knows exactly which parts of the cocktail really attracted her to the genre. Is it the huge world? The immersion? The instances? One particular character class? Socialising? The lore? The gameplay? Raids? The UI? So she will cheer when new games build on the parts she likes, and exude meh when they focus on parts which may be cool but aren’t so crucial to her particular game.

For me, Aion mimics some parts of WoW very well, but it misses the expansiveness of the game world. In other words, it actually fails to mimic one of the things I really like about the game. And I dispute Pete’s claim that this indicates burnout. I know I’m not burned out on MMOs, because I’m really enjoying EQ2 at the moment. But EQ2 does feature a very large and expansive gameworld and gameplay that is similar to WoW in some ways and different in others.

I love the huge smorgasbord element of MMOs. And I love games that really feel massive, and immersive, and social. So the idea of being able to play a pilot and charter groups of mercenaries to dominate planets, and know that actual battles are being fought on the ground somewhere to determine the results of those conflicts … that just hits all my buttons even though I don’t even play EVE. Whereas pretty graphics and a nice questline are just pretty graphics and a nice questline.

I’m sure I’ll jump into Aion sometime (I do need to be in the mood for an open PvP game because I find them more intense) and if my husband and his friends fancy CO I’ll probably try that too. But damn if Dust isn’t the one I’m excited about.

What would a lifetime subscription be worth to you?

The news from Champions Online today is buzzing with the pre-order offer that lets customers buy a lifetime subscription for $199 … as long as they buy it before Sept 1st. (Needless to say, the launch date will be later than this.)

They’re throwing in a few exclusive specials such as extra costume bits (not pictured, naturally), access to the Star Trek Online beta later this year, and extra character slots. But at the end of the day you’re gambling on a game that you haven’t seen unless you are in the closed beta. It may be that they’ll host an open beta before the drop dead date for the offer so anyone considering it will at least be able to see what they are buying.

But the price point is an interesting one, especially for a game that is likely to include RMT options (new costume sets) later on too. If you assume a standard subscription price of $15 per month, the lifetime sub will work out at better value if you play for at least 14 months (actually 13.333). Alternatively you could also pick the special pre-order offer at $60 for 6 months, which looks like better value to me.

Leaving aside the issue of buying a pig in a poke, this kind of pricing does make me wonder how much a lifetime sub is really worth to people. How much would you pay for a lifetime subscription for your favourite game? (Assume you will still need to buy expansion packs as and when they come out). How much would you have paid when it was in beta and you hadn’t had a chance to play it?

The only other game I know that made a similar offer was LOTRO and I’m glad I decided not to go with the lifetime sub. It gave me the freedom to say that I find the game rather dull (it has good points but not enough for me to keep playing it), and move on to other games without feeling an obligation to keep poking around in it.

Twitter Man, thank goodness you came!

Syp got all snarky yesterday about plans in Champions Online to introduce in-game tweeting (I know this works from being spammed a bit in twitter by beta testers already :) ).

I have no idea at all why I’d want to twitter from a MMO. I usually play in windowed mode anyway so if I wanted to twitter I’d just do it. And even if I did I don’t understand why I’d want to broadcast only and not receive. But that isn’t the point. Maybe someone else will find something cool to do with that functionality.

So often devs try to guide players by holding their hands every single step of the way in an MMO. Thou shalt level by killing 10 boars. Thou shalt do PvP on Tuesday mornings and Friday afternoons. Thou shalt raid, whether thou likest it or not. Thou shalt have thy weekly rant at Blizzard for not putting a defence trinket on the badge vendor. And so on.

The games where this is less common are called sandbox games. And a sandbox is a place where kids get to play however they want, within the limits of the box.

More freedom isn’t a bad thing for players. Devs putting cool stuff into the games just because they’re cool isn’t a bad thing either. I like the notion that sometimes we can get off the tour bus and just play with our toys. Throwing the players some cool stuff to play with, just because, isn’t a bad thing.

And it made me look again at Champions Online. If they’re willing to add random cool functionality just because they can, and trust players to find something to do with it, what else might they be willing to do? That type of thinking appeals to me.

(Note: If you want to follow me on twitter, I’m on as @copperbird )