Subscriptions level in WoW, and Ensidia have their eyes on The Old Republic

Earlier this week Activision-Blizzard reported their financial results for 2009, a business related press release in which gaming companies traditionally discuss how their recent offerings have fared in the market, and what’s due to be released in the next year.

Blizzard related points of interest:

  • Cataclysm is on track for a 2010 release
  • So is Starcraft 2
  • Current subscription numbers for World of Warcraft are holding steady at 11.5 million – the same number they mentioned in July last year
  • And apparently only 30% of new WoW players make it past level 10

The subscriber numbers is an interesting one, and underlines even further why Cataclysm is being targeted at new players and returners. The game just isn’t growing any more. On the other hand, there are many subscription MMOs which would have been thrilled to have maintained subscriber numbers from year on year. Could it be that many of the people who might have previously tried WoW have been lured away from MMOs altogether by the casual gaming sector?

Also, every player who has made it past level 10 may now feel like part of an elite force. You are the 3/10 who stuck with it. I think the 30% is misleading only because it implies that other MMOs are stickier; I suspect similar figures would be true of most free trials. In fact, I’ve always wondered how many of EVE’s increasing subscriber numbers is actually due to new players as opposed to old ones with multiple accounts (just picking on EVE because it’s notoriously unfriendly to newbies, especially if most of them can’t handle WoW!)

It won’t surprise anyone who has ever tried to help a friend who is a genuine newbie, but MMOs can be complex and overwhelming to new players. Even one that seems simple to experienced players. Gordon@We Fly Spitfires has written a few blog posts about his experience of playing with his brother, who is a genuine noob.

Mike Morhaine even commented that one of the aims of Cataclysm was to make the low level experience more compelling, to lure more of those newbies into staying. This makes me even more curious to see what they have in mind for levels 1-10. Can it be a good tutorial for genuine newbies and still fun for the old time players?

My big question though is if players who try a new MMO for a month and then go back to Warcraft are WoW tourists, what do you call a player who tries WoW and then goes back to … I dunno what really … Farmville? Should we call them Farmville tourists?

Ensidia eye up the dark side

Peace is a lie; there is only passion.
Through passion, I gain strength.
Through strength, I gain power.
Through power, I gain victory.
Through victory, my chains are broken.
The Force shall free me.
—The Sith Code

This was one of the more unexpected links in my RSS reader this morning. Darth Hater, one of the big SWTOR blogs, scored an interview with a couple of the Ensidia officers who chat about raiding, difficulty in games, and why they are looking forwards to Star Wars: The Old Republic.

Now, nothing I have read about that game pegs it as a game designed to appeal to the WoW hardcore raiders. But everyone is entitled to live in hope.

In fact, SWTOR fans will have to live in hope, because EA announced in their own financial report that the game won’t be out before Q2 2011.

The Shape of Things to Come

One of the things that caught my eye about Ensidiagate (thanks Matt for coining that term) was how different people responded to the notion that some tradeskill might give an advantage in a raid encounter.

Most longterm WoW players reacted immediately, saying Blizzard would never do that intentionally – which is true. It is completely against their current philosophy. But there was a time when that type of obscure puzzle solving strategy was considered fair game by designers.

Remember Naxxramas? How about that boss which required the use of mind control on the adds, a spell given to only one class in the game. Going back to DaoC, I remember an encounter where the raid needed to stop some adds from walking into the centre of an area. The adds were immune to almost all crowd control. The eventual solution? It involved stealthers using a distract rotation; every time the mob was targeted, it paused for a moment and turned away from the stealther.

Even later on at Lady Vashj, I remember people using the tailored nets to help slow adds.

Back in those days, we would have loved an encounter that required a tradeskill trick to complete. Discovering that strategy would have been brilliant fun, and rewarded real out of the box thinking. And imagine discovering that your crappy tradeskill turns out to be really crucial for a boss fight?

This is not excusing Ensidia for ignoring an obvious exploit (yes, I think it is increasingly obvious that they knew something was up, they’re a very smart bunch), but MMOs these days are moving swiftly away from puzzle solving. There’s not much wriggle room for out of the box thinking in PvE these days in theme park games, and too much of it will lead to exploits. Instead you have to solve the problem in the way the designers intended.

I was thinking this on reading in the Escapist about the Bioware founders’ favourite games of the last decade. I see a lot of shooters in those lists. And only one true puzzle game, LittleBigPlanet.

We know that puzzle based encounters are problematic in MMOs, because of all the spoiler sites and tactic guides, but I wonder if raids were more fun when we felt that any strategy was fair game and that being creative might be rewarded. Has the internet really killed puzzle games? World of Goo and Professor Layton have been popular enough, players still like this sort of challenge and are happy to pay for it.

And I wonder how much of the Ensidia leadership is simply mired in the past, when tanks were warriors, paladins were alliance, and out of the box thinking got you world firsts.

Did Ensidia deserve a ban?

So the big WoW drama story today is that Ensidia got the world first kill on 25 man Arthas last night … and then later all took a 72 hour ban, and had the title and achievement removed. Allegedly because of an exploit involving engineering.

Larisa discusses the ban here, and whether people feel sympathy or not for one of the most opinionated raid crews on the planet.

But now events have taken an intriguing twist. Boubouille of mmo-champion, a respected blogger who is best known recently for being spot on with his Cataclysm leaks, has been provided by Ensidia with the logs from yesterday’s raids.

He uses these to show that the bombs had been part of the rogue’s regular rotation on other bosses, and comments that he didn’t think Ensidia had any way to know that the bombs were causing the problem. So of course they just thought it was a buggy fight.

Does seeing a respected blogger pick through the logs change your view on whether Ensidia deliberately used an exploit? And do they deserve a ban?

I think the harshest part of the whole thing will be if losing the achievement means that they can’t start on the hard modes next week with the other top guilds. And that will be a loss for all of the players who enjoy competing for progression kills.

Edited to add: And here’s a post on mmo-champion where one of the Ensidia raiders gives his point of view anonymously, and explains more about how it feels to be in that sort of guild and in that kind of situation.

Spicing up farm raids, external auction access, and the Lich King is dead

First up, congratulations to Blood Legion on the world first 10 man Lich King kill. (I did think it was funny that they praise their non-vent voice chat in the bboard post at mmo-champion but their website has an advert for vent hosting.)

I suspect  no-one was surprised that Arthas didn’t even last until the end of the night, and I’ll be amazed if at least one of the EU guilds doesn’t kill him tonight also after our patch goes live. None of which means that it was particularly easy, just top guilds are that good and this isn’t a hard mode that was set up specifically to test them.

edited to add: Yup, as expected, Ensidia got a kill in on 10 man Arthas this afternoon, on their 5th attempt. They comment that some of their raiders were quite moved by the lore and RP, which is sweet.

External Access to the Game and Auction House

Bornakk announced yesterday on the official forums plans to let players access the Auction House without being logged into WoW, either through the Armoury or an iPhone application.

Today, we wanted to give you a heads-up about a new service now in development that will let players access the Auction House directly through the Armory website or Armory App for iPhone or iPod touch.

It’s important to note here that certain elements of the service will be premium-based, which we’ll go into more detail on once the service functionality is finalized.

Player vs Developer discusses some of the implications of this functionality. He suspects Blizzard will require the use of an authenticator to use the Auction House remotely, which does seem likely.

The biggest implication for me is that Blizzard is eyeing up the casual gaming market. Maybe some Farmville fans (who also happen to be WoW players) would also enjoy playing the WoW auction house during lunchtime at work. If this is successful, it could herald the way to more mini-resource management games which could be played outside the game client but still give some bonuses in game. That would certainly fit into the something-for-every-playstyle model of MMO.

I could also imagine far more automation of Auction House activities. Imagine an addon which logged into the AH once an hour remotely and could be set to check current prices on desirable commodities and automatically buy or sell if the price is right. For example: check the price of  titansteel and buy if it is selling for less than 150g.

And finally, Blizzard are showing a marked preference for the iPhone, which has got to be disappointing to anyone with a different smartphone. (Possibly even one that features true multi-tasking :P ) There’s a balance between offering neat functionality to the Apple lovers and saying ‘actually, you really need this gadget to really get the most out of our PC game.’ Although I applaud their business nous at realising that iPhone users will probably happily cough up premium rate subscriptions for the privilege of gaming via their favourite toy.

The Advent of the Weekly Raid Quest

I almost missed this one but today’s patch has also added some extra weekly quests to the Icecrown Citadel. They’re available from various NPCs inside the Citadel, and hopefully we will soon know more about them.

They feature extra mini-bosses, and reward extra frost badges, gold, and … inexplicably … xp. Here’s the quest list from wowhead.com.

I love the idea of throwing in some random extra encounters to spice up otherwise dull farm raids. Comments from wow.com imply that these weeklies aren’t a walk in the park, so they might also add some extra optional difficulty and rewards for guilds that are bored of normal modes but maybe struggling with hard modes.