Gaming News: LOTRO goes F2P, Zynga buys Warstorm Dev, Sony announces Clone Wars Online, DC Online, Buzz about Halflife 3

Good news everyone, I didn’t have to make up any news this week!

LOTRO, Darkfall: Free as in Beer (the first round is on the house)

In case anyone had escaped the internet LOTRO blogging blitz, yes Turbine have announced that their  AAA Lord of the Rings MMO will be offering a wider variety of payment schemes from sometime this Autumn, so probably around November. Which does, yes, include some non-subscription cash shop options.

The big news from my point of view is that this is going to happen for the Euro servers as well as the US ones (unlike DDO). So we may actually retain some players. We still don’t know exactly how the changeover will affect existing players. So expect to hear more about that as the deadline approaches.

In other freemium news, Darkfall has announced a new 14 day free trial. So if you’re curious to test Aventurine’s claims that their MMO is not just a hardcore PvP gankfest with a confusing UI but actually does sport some challenging PvE also, this is your chance.

Zynga pays a high price for Challenge Games

Continuing to buy their way to dominance of Facebook games, Zynga announced a new acquisition this week. Challenge Games have made a name for themselves producing innovative social games like Warstorm (a collectible card type game) and Ponzi (a game that pokes fun at corporate life), with the obligatory cash shop purchases built in.

So it’s clear that Zynga recognise that they’ve been weak at innovation in this area – all of their more popular games right now were based on polishing other existing games. And this is how they plan to plug the gap. Challenge now becomes Zynga’s Austin office.

Sony announces two new MMOs, internet ignores one of them

Sony announced that they are releasing two new MMOs this year:

Care to guess which one got all the attention? Hint: It wasn’t DCU Online. This can’t bode well for the superhero MMO, maybe the popular interest in playing superheroes just isn’t there or is already well catered for with City of Heroes (due an expansion later this year too) and Champions Online. I was actually surprised by how few of the blogs and news outlets I read had much to say about it.

Everyone seems far more taken by the notion of Clone Wars Adventures, myself included. Maybe Sony have some agile PR campaign planned for DCUO later this year to stir up some excitement.

November is looking pretty busy this year for MMO releases, especially if Cataclysm ends up with a November release date too (which is likely). And we still don’t have dates for Final Fantasy 14, which also could potentially release this year, not to mention other smaller games (Jumpgate Evolution, Black Prophecy, TERA, etc.)

Valve cancels the Portal 2 demo at E3… what are they planning?

Lots of gaming journalists this week received a note from Aperture Science to announce the cancellation of the Portal 2 demo at E3. It will be replaced with A Surprise. RPS speculate whether the surprise might be related to a Half-Life 3 announcement.

From working my way through Portal (what a great game!!), I can only say that I regard announcements from Aperture Science with a degree of .. uh … cynicism. My 2c says that it is in fact going to be the Portal 2 demo, but maybe they’ll zap visiting hacks with cake guns or something similarly amusing to the public.

In any case, Valve could teach Sony a thing or three about PR campaigns. Maybe Portal 2 could include a Batman level to hype DCUO or something…

Puzzling PR #2, and a great article on casual/ hardcore gaming

Most puzzling comment made in an interview I saw this week was from Bioware, on the topic of Mass Effect 3. Apparently the third story is where they are going to bring some more fun and lightness into the trilogy, like the ewoks in Star Wars.

But I thought that everyone hated the ewoks and also, what if existing players love the games BECAUSE they aren’t fun and light hearted. Just a thought. Why are devs so scared of the grimdark, I wonder. It obviously does sell.

And because I forgot this from yesterday’s link post, everyone should go and read Greg Costyikan’s great article in The Escapist in which he ponders why publishers and retailers have been trying so hard to drive a wedge between casual and hardcore gamers. After all, don’t lots of people play both, and have been since the very dawn of gaming?

Free Trials, Open Betas, Welcome Back Weekends — Do they tempt you?

MMOs are difficult games to pin down; they’re constantly changing and growing, being streamlined, including temporary holiday events, and adding new content and rewards. A game that failed to grab you at launch may be exactly what you are looking for in six months time.

But it is a difficult task to tempt a player back to a game after they have tried and abandoned it once. And just as hard to lure new players into an older game where they may have to level solo with very little guidance, and then find themselves bottom of the pecking order among the established playerbase.

So what can games do to encourage players to take a second (or first) look? We’ve seen increasing numbers of games this year flock to the Welcome Back Weekend banner. LOTRO and Champions Online have held repeated free weeks for ex-customers, and even WoW offered a free week in game recently. It’s a handy way to check the game out, remind yourself about any old characters you left hanging, and see what has changed since you last played. Even to touch base with old friends and guildies who still play.

Free Trials and Open Betas (which pretty much are free trials these days) make it easier for a new player to decide to throw down some cash on a subscription. At least you will know the game runs on your machine, and whether or not you like the feel of it and the community.

I know that having a welcome back week in LOTRO helped me decide to resubscribe. It also helped a lot that Arbitrary was happy to show me around and help me catch up to what I needed to be doing during the free week. I also know that I have never subscribed to an MMO sight-unseen. There has always at least been a free trial or open beta involved.

How about you? Do welcome back weeks tempt you back? Would you buy a game without trying it first? Do you play open betas because it’s the closest you can get to a free trial? And if you do have friends who you know are on a free trial, do you try to sell the game to them or help them out especially?

Gambling with pre-order bonuses and beta access

gamblingphoto by waffler@flickr

The current trend in MMOs is to include early access to the game, pre-launch, as part of a pre-order deal. So if you pre-order a game like Aion (no bias intended, I’m just picking it as the next big game to launch), the publishers throw in free access to the closed beta and to any other headstart type early access. You may get other perks also.

So what’s to stop you taking the pre-order to get the beta access and then cancelling? Nothing. In fact, if you aren’t sure that the game is for you  it’s a smart way to check it out. Embrace the pre-order as a way to get a free trial. Be careful of whatever NDAs are in place. When the NDA drops, tell everyone what you thought. If you don’t fancy the game, cancel the pre-order.

This is a very different scheme from actually charging for closed beta access. As a customer, a pre-order is a declaration of intent to buy when the game is released. Usually you’ll supply payment details when you make the pre-order, on the understanding that you don’t actually pay until the release date. That means that you can cancel at any time before that and pay nothing.

When a company chooses to make beta access complicit on a pre-order, they understand that too. The majority of people who bother to pre-order probably won’t cancel, and it’s nice to have some upfront numbers for PR purposes. For example, Aion announced recently that they have over 300k pre-orders. Just bear in mind that those aren’t solid cash until the fat lady sings, the game gets released, and they find out how many of those pre-orders were still valid. Also, the pre-order crowd are likely to be the hardcore gamers, the guys who read official sites and bulletin boards, the guys who are influential in other games’ communities.

So actually, giving beta access to pre-orders is a way of getting some experienced gamers into the beta. Who is to say that’s a worse way to test the game than getting any other random selection? There is really no moral issue with cancelling a pre-order. Especially if you played the beta, spread the word, and helped to stress test or find other bugs too.

So I was talking about gambling in the subject line here. With a pre-order bonus, it is the developer who is taking the gamble. They’re gambling that getting some experienced gamers in will pay off in terms of PR, word of mouth, and making those customers feel special, and feel so attached to the new game that they want to buy it and spend lots of money on it. The customer has no risk, they can try the game and still not pay if they don’t like it. So I would absolutely encourage anyone to take out pre-orders which offer beta access if they want to try a new game out before it is released.

Just … bear in mind that a beta isn’t really the same as a free trial, even if it is being sold that way.

When is a Closed Beta not a Closed Beta?

Selling beta access as part of a pre-order will change how players feel about it. There’s no notion that you had to fill in a form explaining why you’d be a good beta tester to get in (I’m sure no one reads those forms but just the fact that you often have to fill them in for beta makes people think about the whole idea of a beta test). A player might not be told anything about the beta except that characters get deleted before the game goes live.

If the beta client is not very up front about offering obvious ways to report bugs and tell players what functionality is currently being focus tested, then pre-order players will ignore the test side of things.

This may be fine. It may be that the devs want to just let players loose in the beta version and see what happens. Again, grabbing some experienced players to do this is at least as good a test corps as you’d get from random applicants. The fact that these are guys who have shown interest in giving you money at a future date is just a bonus. If however the beta client is still very buggy, some of those pre-orders will be lost. Players may have come in with the mindset that they’ll experience the finished product unless it is made very obvious to them that this is not the case.

Clearly a free to play model won’t need to charge for beta access, either in real cash or via pre-order. So maybe in the future this odd status of the beta test will either resolve into a free trial or a free test.

But right now, it’s peculiar. If you have actually paid for goods or services then you’re entitled to certain levels of quality (the phrase ‘fit for purpose’ is used a lot in the law here, for example). If you haven’t, then who knows where consumer laws fit in? If you didn’t get your beta access for technical reasons, then you can hardly claim damages when you hadn’t paid in the first place. This is why beta agreements can be quite arcane – no one sane thinks you can reasonably expect test code to perform like live code. But when it is being sold as a free trial, even when people say that they understand it is a beta test, their expectations say something different.

Like I say, I think it’s perfectly sensible to pre-order if you want the pre-access, and then cancel. Would you do that? Are you planning on doing it with any games in particular and if so, why?

WAR really wants you to come up and see it sometime

The big Warhammer Online news this week is that patch 1.2 has gone live, and along with it, the new Slayer and Choppa classes. (I keep typing Chippa instead of Choppa which makes me think of fish and chips). The new classes are bags of fun, it’s hard to really go wrong with a dual wielding melee “hit it till it falls over” style and people have been wanting their mohawk dwarves and basic orcs since forever.

The other big Warhammer Online news is that although they’ve been consolidating servers via transfers for some time, they’ve finally done some merges and closed the unneeded ones.

In the US, from 43 servers the number is now down to 17. 20 servers closed in the EU so they now have more servers than the US, but that does  include foreign language servers.

I don’t think closing servers is the great sign of doom that it used to be. Obviously losing players isn’t good but a game like Warhammer with the heavy PvP emphasis needs high populations to make it work. There simply isn’t much to do if other players aren’t around.

I also think that the reason fewer servers were closed in the EU is that GOA had been more proactive than Mythic in consolidating up until now. They’d seen the issues and tried to address them. And possibly, just possibly, the game actually has more subscribers in its continent of origin.

What it all adds up to is a game that desperately wants to be loved. Mythic/GOA have been adding content at a rate of knots, they’ve really been trying to address the issues that players had with the game, and they’ve taken the difficult step of closing servers in order to improve the game experience across the board. It’s a fun game with cool classes and a lot of smart design tweaks, set in a glowingly detailed universe with over 25 years of world development.

Also because of the new classes, the lower tiers are very very busy. It’s a good time to go check it out.

No better time than the present

And in case anyone was in any doubt about whether now was a good time to test the waters, Mythic/GOA have introduced 10 day free trials.

That’s not the end of the advertising blitz. Former subscribers, including Esri@Gaming Granny and Scott Jennings@Broken Toys have received personalised mailshots from Karl Franz himself ordering their characters back to the front line and referring to their guild and  friends who are already there. I was amused by that, nice one Mythic.

But my ‘they never??!’ award goes to wowwiki. I giggled.

Mythic’s ability at PR and spin may be one of the great unrecognised sparks of genius in the MMO arena at the moment. I thought those were all good ways of drumming up some interest.

And what about me?

I can’t be lured back because my sub is actually still active. I simply haven’t been playing much. But I did log on yesterday to pick up one of my underplayed alts and go join the tier 1 mayhem.

And yes, Tier 1 is still buckets of fun. I logged my little Knight of the Blazing Sun (it’s a tank, yes), queued myself up for scenarios and before long I too was enjoying the simple pleasure of thwacking orcs over the head and trying to protect my healer by … uh … getting in the way a lot.

PvP tanking in Warhammer is novel because it actually works. Tanks in WAR end up with a fair amount of crowd control, with the intention that you should use it to stop mean melee dudes slicing up your squishies. Added to this, collision detection means that standing in the way is not simply a way of life but also a viable tactic.

My little tier 1 tank doesn’t have much in the way of crowd control going for her yet. She has a snare to make it harder for enemies to get away. But damn if she isn’t good at being in the way.

Unsurprisingly, tier 1 is currently dominated by the new classes. And the side which is able to dredge up a couple of tanks, healers, or ranged dps to help them out has a definite advantage in scenarios. Props in particular to the brave little runepriestess, the only pure healer I saw all day, who did her best to heal me even when I failed miserably at my getting-in-the-wayness.

I don’t entirely know what the upcoming massive class imbalance will do to the game. I think a lot of people will love their new choppa/slayer and will continue to play it. But I do know that it certainly hasn’t ruined the PvP elements which I was playing.