[News] TSW drops subscription charges, Layoffs at Trion

Just a couple of links today because the news is rolling.

Rock Paper Shotgun have an interview with Funcom, AHEAD of the announcement that TSW is going to drop sub fees. I don’t really understand this whole concept of the pre-announcement announcement, but moving to non-subscription is going to make the game much more appealing to anyone who was on the fence because of the costs.

I’m certainly much more likely to take a longer look. We knew Funcom had issues with TSW sales from previous layoffs, hopefully this will help the game to find an audience. Alongside SWTOR, this is another nail in the coffin of the subscription MMO — not to mention another example of an MMO changing its payment model fairly shortly after launch.

And in other, sadder news, Trion is laying off a number of developers from the Rift team. (What is it about US firms that they like to have a round of layoffs just before Christmas?) We heard very little about the sub numbers for Rift recently, so I can only guess this means that expansion sales weren’t enough to keep the boat afloat. I have been curious about how well Trion is managing to cost all of it’s projects (Rift, End of Nations, and Defiance). 2012 is certainly turning out as an anno horribilis for the gaming industry,  in the West at least. Moorgard notes that he has friends who have spent the year moving from one layoff to the next; I can only feel for them and hope next year works out better.

Oh, and Darkfall put back their release until January to allow more time for testing. This will likely be interpreted by a lot of people as a failure, but I tend to view delaying launch to allow more testing time as a success that bodes well for the future.

[Links] Day of Reckoning for 38 Studios, soloing in MMOs, Diablo 3, Sony won the console wars?

Scott Jennings writes eloquently about the week when 40% of the SWTOR team was laid off, and 38 Studios (makers of Kingdoms of Amalur, and with an MMO in the works) imploded very publically.

I think the direction that our industry is going – the incredible amount of money wasted by EA on what was essentially a roll of the dice that came up 2 and 3, and the even more incredible display of massive hubris and utter incompetence on the part of Schilling and his management team, is killing the very concept of massively multiplayer gaming.

Everything I have read about 38 Studios going tits up makes me think that the management were a bucket of tits. (Yes that is the technical term.) Implausible business plan, lack of auditing on cashflow, taking on way more staff than they needed or could support, dicking around with staff. Unsubject writes in more detail on the financials. The only surprising thing to me is that so many MMO bloggers have sympathy for them – MMOs get cancelled in pre-production all the time, we should be used to it by now. I don’t care if it was run by a rich sportsman with a dream or a lameass banker, they screwed up.

Or in the words of Kevin Dent at  Kotaku:

I have a theory that Harvard Business School basically set this entire thing up so as to demonstrate how many ways someone can screw up running a business. If this is the case, heartfelt congrats to the Crimson Halls, you owned it.

I literally could not invent more ways to screw up than Curt Schilling has with 38.

I can’t entirely agree with Scott about the effect on MMOs though, because big budget AAA MMOs were already pretty much on the outs. You can tell this because Michael Pachter recently said so, and he only ever makes predictions after the event.

One of the interesting things about this story though is that both Bioware Austin and 38 Studios put out pretty decent games that got some critical acclaim. Neither Amalur nor SWTOR are bad games, and both were reasonably successful in the market. Just their funding model needed more than ‘reasonably successful’ – in 38 Studio’s case it is because their management can’t handle simple maths and in Bioware’s case it’s because for some reason EA felt that ploughing unfeasibly massive amounts into the game was going to pay off. (Nice bonus for players I guess, because it does feel lush.)

SWTOR will be profitable, incidentally.  It will just take a few months longer than EA predictions and that’s why it is being seen as a failure. Whereas in fact it sold more boxes more quickly than any other western MMO in the market and has fairly decent retention figures for an MMO, even allowing for number massaging. In any case, they’ve just announced that patch 1.3 (which will include a random dungeon finder) is going onto the test server imminently and that they have plans to consolidate servers into super-servers, which are both needed updates.

Shintar shares some hopes and fears that she has for the new patch.

Anyhow, it’s sad for the staff, obviously. But we’re in a recession and MMOs are risky business at the best of times, and these things happen (especially when your management are a bucket of tits, which isn’t really the case for Bioware). Hopefully they’ll find something else swiftly. I’ll miss Stephen Reid/Rockjaw, he was a great CSM.

Soloing in MMOs

Keen also found time to muse this week about why people solo in MMOs (remember in my last incredibly wise words of wisdom to new bloggers I noted that soloing vs grouping was one of THOSE topics?), claiming that MMOs aren’t single player games. So why do devs want to try to mimic single player gameplay?

I am referring to the open and deliberate act of making a very core part of a MMO into a single-player experience as if the players were offline.

Bernardparsnip at Diminishing Returns reflects on players who might want some of the advantages of mas…sive games without the disadvantages.

I recognize that there is a demographic of players that want the benefits of an MMO – a persistent world, frequent content updates, a player-driven economy, opportunities for PvP and cooperative play, without the disadvantages inherent with playing with others.

Azuriel takes a different tack and wonders whether MMOs really do suck as single player games.

…in a very real sense I consider the average MMORPG these days as a much better single-player game than the average RPG.

My view is that we’re seeing traditional boundaries between single player and multiplayer games come crashing down around us, and players may not yet be sure exactly what they do want. This sense of wanting all the benefits of massive multiplayer games (like a vibrant player based economy and instant groups whenever you want them) without the negatives (like having to actually talk to anyone or rely on other players in any way) is very strong in the current crop of games.

I think Journey laid this out most neatly with having other players viewed as friendly but nameless entities, and Dee wonders if maybe the public quests in GW2 will have the same effect. But it won’t ever be the same as the sort of communities that more forced socialising will bring together, we could end up with people playing side by side but always on their own.

Ultimately I’d like to see more gating in future games, allowing players to build up communities of interest in games of their choice. What if I want to play EVE but without having to play with the more sexist, racist, homophobic players who seem to populate it (going by forum posts at least)? This is going to become more and more of an issue for anyone running online games in future, I suspect, as players lose their tolerance for playing with random dickweeds. (This will come to be seen as one of the negatives of MMOs that people would like to avoid.)

Zubon has a really smart post about how different games attract a different type of player and suggests people flock to games which seem to be populated with players like themselves.

But there is a flaw in his argument, which is how exactly are you going to find this out? If I search round EVE blogs and forums, I’ll find a lot of very aggressive posturing and the aforementioned sexist, racist, etc. language. But I do happen to know people who play EVE who aren’t like that, so it isn’t universal.

Similarly, WoW is so large that it probably contains communities of just about every MMO player type under the sun if you can find them. So characterising it as the McDonalds of MMOs isn’t quite true in terms of the playerbase. It’s more of a mosaic than a least common denominator known for poor but consistent quality.

While LOTRO is justly known for its attention to the setting, I’d also say it was a haven for more mature gamers and for RPers. But that was before it went F2P and it may have changed since then. So how would a new player know?

So while I think Zubon makes a good argument, it just places more emphasis on how /the community/ constructs explanations of what type of player different games attract and then communicates it. And bloggers bear a lot of the responsibility for this. When I write that my guild in SWTOR are laid back, friendly, casual players and raiders, people will assume this is normal for the game. It probably is! But you’re just getting one player’s view.

Redbeard tackles a similar topic from the point of view of new players in WoW at the moment.

If Blizz is serious about bringing in and keeping new blood, then they have to address the social issues in WoW.  This isn’t Pollyanna country, and it ain’t EVE, either.  People like to be welcomed and respected and tolerated.  If they feel the environment is toxic, they’ll move on.  You can’t expect a new player to blindly stumble through all of the social pitfalls and land in a good guild without guidance, and likewise you can’t expect someone to blithely ignore all of the social issues that some players bring to WoW.

Diablo 3

Clearly we haven’t had enough posting about D3 yet. I’m still having fun with the game but slowing down now that I’m in Hell level on my barbarian. I don’t know that I can honestly see this as an evergreen game I’d be playing months from now (especially if Torchlight 2 and GW2 and updates to SWTOR are coming out). The Auction House is definitely impacting on the game’s lifespan in my view, and they haven’t launched the real money AH yet.

Hugh at the MMO Melting Pot (who you should follow for excellent daily aggregations of MMO blogging) collects some more views on the auction house.

The Ancient Gaming Noob has played both Diablo 3 and the Torchlight 2 beta and gives a thorough comparison between what he has seen of the games.

Milady explains why she thinks Diablo 3 is a wellmade mistake.

They had many years to consider how to best mine money from their users, and Diablo III in its entirety is what they came up with. From Blizzard’s perspective, the gear barrier is there so you are forced to buy to continue; the barrier to grouping in Inferno is built so you cannot be too effective at higher levels, and are forced to grind on your own and buy loot; the enforced multiplayer exists solely to apply peer-pressure to your gearing up, so you need to resort to the AH to play with them.

Rohan argues that Elective Mode in D3 is a mistake.

Green Armadillo lists a lot of things that D3 is not and wonders if Blizzard were right to keep the name.

And Gevlon explains why he thinks D3 just doesn’t work as a competitive game.

Straw Fellow defends Blizzard’s decision to require D3 players to be always online.

Microsoft and the Console Wars

Microsoft may face a ban on imports of the XBox 360 into the US and Germany because of patent infringement. I assume they’ll settle with Motorola out of court, but it would be an amusing way to lose the console wars.

It would be nice to think that the patent rats nest might get sorted out sometime soon, but since there is no real sign of that happening, better hope your favourite manufacturer knows how to play the game.

And finally …

Berath ponders why there are so few gaming blogs focussed on shooters, given how many people play them.

Xintia explains why Bioware are great at telling stories but bad at designing games.

And Melmoth waxes lyrical about the general chat channel in TERA.

What was fascinating about the channel was that it had become a microcosm of the blogosphere: nearly every general topic that I’ve seen repeatedly touched upon over the past five or so years of blogging was mentioned in this one place, all in the fast forward nature of a back-and-forth conversation between people whose attention was invariably elsewhere. I quickly found myself privately playing Cassandra to any topic raised, knowing full well the future of each discussion, where the disagreements would come from, and the conclusions which would be drawn.

Gaming News: Layoffs at SOE, PC Zone kicks the bucket, Tale in the Desert’s new telling, Is Bobby Kotick a gamer?, Free Realms lifetime bargain

This week there has been a lot of debate on monetization of computer games. This has been an ongoing issue – how do people want to pay for games which they play over a long period of time (aside from ‘not at all, please’). And surely a game which provides 100 hours of play should be worth more than one where the player gets bored after an hour and never tries it again, shouldn’t it?

This week’s debate was kicked off again by analyst Michael Pachter. In any case, it’s clear that if you are in the business of selling expensive AAA certain best sellers with online multiplayer support that you fully expect players to keep playing for several hours a week for the next few months … then you’ll want to look at getting more money out of the punters via subscriptions and cash shops. Also you don’t want to take too many risks with your games – this is the current Activision model.

If you are in the business of selling a wider range of games and you hope that players will buy lots of them before they find one that they want to put more time into, then massive variety in the games on offer and lots of choices about demos, freemium, try before you buy, and optional DLC are the way to go. EA is heading this way.

There will be blood. The only certain outcome is that we will all end up paying more for online gaming. And that Blizzard will try to keep battle.net free for as long as they can since they’ve said repeatedly that they want to do that. Good luck there then.

Sony News: Layoffs, Free Realm cheap subs, security issues

SOE this week announced that they were laying off 4% of their staff (35 employees). Massively have done some digging and noted that this mostly affects EQ2 and Vanguard staff. I’ll call it now and say that there’s no way that SOE are working on Everquest 3. Feel free to mock me if I am proved wrong later.

This week, they also announced a good temporary deal on lifetime subscriptions to Free Realms. The Ancient Gaming Noob wonders whether SOE are in need of a quick burst of funds, which may be the case. But I suspect that actually people who have paid a ‘lifetime sub’ (which in this case comes down to the same price as a boxed game) are more likely to keep dropping in and playing the game occasionally, which also means more likely to spend money in the cash shop.

Also, I bet a lot of people who tried Free Realms and liked it but weren’t really drawn in enough to keep playing will pay the cheap lifetime cost, just to ‘keep the option open in future since the price is so good right now’.

Or in other words, I think this will draw in a lot of people who otherwise had no intention at all of paying for subscriptions. SOE is assuming this outweighs the income they get from people who actually did pay for subs, which I am guessing isn’t many. It’ll be interesting to see how this all works out. And also bear in mind they’re launching a new FR style star wars game this autumn so they’ll be hoping that some current active FR players will be spending cash in that too.

And the final SOE news this week is that they’ve had a security alert for EQ2/ station accounts. That is not good.

Layoffs at Rockstar

More layoffs in the game industry were in the news this week. Rockstar has apparently laid off 40 of the Red Dead Redemption team, proving again that making a best selling award winnning game is no guarantee of industry job security.

I think they also the win “worst use of management speak” award for this year so far for:

As Rockstar San Diego transitions from the launch of Red Dead Redemption onto future projects, we are realigning our resources in order to continue to develop games as effectively as possible.

PC Zone, end of an era

I always hated PC Zone so I don’t care if it died, but for those who do care, a 17 year old UK gaming magazine closed its doors this month.

PC Gamer has far far better coverage of the sorts of games I actually like (MMOs, adventure games, puzzle games, DS games etc) which is why I actually buy it occasionally. I hope that PC Zone’s demise is an indicator that the core audience is not what it used to be.

Activision wonders if hardcore gamers love them enough

Several stories this week about Activision:

  1. Activision Publishing’s CEO says that they need to fix their hardcore reputation. By which he means that they want hardcore gamers to love them. They have possibly realised that this is not currently the case although it will not in any way stop people from buying their games.
  2. Tim Schafer, respected game developer, has some choice words about Bobby Kotick and calls him a total dick who doesn’t like games.
  3. Item 1 above may explain why Activision actually responded to Tim Schafer’s comments. Their spokeswoman points out that Tim has never actually met Kotick and claims, “Bobby has always been passionate about games and loves the videogame industry.” Notably, she doesn’t try to claim that he isn’t a total dick.

Apparently Starcraft 2 cost $100m to make. But we don’t know how much of that Blizzard spent on painting the logo all over airliners. In any case, the game is released on 27th July, at which point they’ll start making all that money back. The sheer sums involved are now comparable to blockbuster movie development. That’s where the industry is.

A new tale in the desert telling to start soon

Tale in the Desert, the indie darling social/crafting MMO starts a new telling soon. (A telling is basically a reboot of the game, so if you are curious to get in on the ground floor, that’s the time to do it.)

I plan to write more on TitD soon. I did play it for a few months during Telling 3 and it’s  an absolutely fascinating game. It is also not one without its problems – the big problem in social games being the other players.