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 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.

Lord of the Rings Online offers a budget a la carte.

buffet (kawanet@flickr)

What is it with MMO payment plans and food metaphors?

Subscription games are often described as all you can eat buffets, and now Turbine is describing their plans for LOTRO as offering an a la carte option (if you don’t eat out much, ‘a la carte’ just means you get to order what you want from the menu). I guess we all just relate to food. Can’t wait to see the menu fixe, catch of the day, and pre-theatre quick dinner offers.

In any case, Lord of the Rings Online is about to become more accessible to new players – at least from a financial point of view. When the switchover happens (sometime in the Autumn, so probably Oct/Nov) the starting content/ zones will be available for free. And Codemasters also dropped a press release stating that the EU version of the game is going the same way.

Free players get a cut down version of the game, but as much time as they like to play around with it. And then if you want more, you can select which options you want and pay for those as you wish. Want another character slot? Buy one. Want more bank bags? Buy some. Want access to another zone? Buy that too. Plus the obligatory cosmetic gear. And as soon as you give Turbine any money at all for anything, you are classified as a Premium User and get a few extra perks for free. So there is a good incentive to make that first purchase, however small. You can tell that Turbine have some experience under their belt with F2P games and what western customers might want to buy.

Here’s the big (UK) list as to which types of subscriber get what. The ‘quest packs’ are zones, and since LOTRO zones do pack a lot of content, that’s going to be an interesting model to watch.

We won’t know for sure what is on offer until they finalise the cash shop. And yes, the F2P (free to play) players do get a limited subset. Only one character slot, a low gold cap, few bags, limited traits, self-service customer service (err, maybe that means access to web based help). But it’s enough to play the game and decide if you want to buy more.


My gut feeling: feels like a smart conversion to me. LOTRO is a quality game – much heavier on the exploring and immersiveness than WoW. The quest design will increasingly feel old fashioned as newer games are released, so this is probably the right time to open it up, while people still remember and are nostalgic for earlier times.

Current players have mixed reactions. Turbine is evidently trying to give decent value to those who already have lifetime subscriptions – they still get pretty much unlimited access to the buffet plus a package of cash shop points every month. Whether monthly sub payers will also still feel that they are getting good value isn’t so clear. But at least they will have more choices on how to pay and if they decide to stop paying for a few months, they can still access their characters. The player base in general is also wary of an influx of F2P players. The LOTRO community has a good reputation, and for good reason.

But at the end of the day, an injection of new players should improve the game for everyone. The game is slower paced than WoW and casual friendly, and the type of people who will get into it enough to want to pay Turbine/ Codies are likely to be the same type who currently pay.

As for the lifetime sub, I noted when I picked mine up at half price that I was wondering what the future held for LOTRO. I don’t really feel burned that the game is going F2P. I still get about 6 months worth of subs out of it, plus the equivalent of lots of free stuff when they switch. I probably wouldn’t have bought it if I had known what they planned to announce and this doesn’t particularly endear me to Turbine/ Codies (a bonus for people who bought lifetimes recently would have done this), but I knew the risks.

And the chance of being able to get my husband and friends to try the game out in a regular group is something I look forwards to greatly. Maybe we can get even an EU blog/ reader guild going!

If you are curious then you could sign up for Turbine’s F2P beta. LOTRO is one of my favourite MMOs, and I’m happy that more people will get a chance to try it.

So what does this mean for current endgame players?

No expansion announcement. There is to be a new endgame zone, with quests and a new book in the epic story, which will all be released when the game goes F2P. It’s been about a year since the endgame players last got a new raid. Think about how WoW players start climbing the walls if they have to wait 6 months and you’ll get an inkling for how things have been.

Does F2P mean that the emphasis in LOTRO is going to be much more on casual or lower level players? We’ll have to see.

Massively have a great interview with Turbine, which picks up on many of these questions.

Cheap LOTRO Lifetime Subscriptions! But what does it mean?

Codemasters surprised us this afternoon by announcing a special offer on LOTRO lifetime subscriptions. This week, you can buy a lifetime sub to the game for £75 (that’s around half the normal price, I think).

It could be a clever promotion to encourage players like me who have dipped in and out of the game since it went live to finally take the plunge. And at that price, I have no hesitation about picking up a lifetime subscription myself.

Or does it herald a change in direction at Turbine? A move to more paid-for content patches and item shop together with a cheaper lifetime offer might be the new scheme. Or maybe if Turbine are shifting resources to a new game (say .. Harry Potter based maybe, since they’ve just been bought out by Time Warner) and plan to ease up on the LOTRO content, it would be time to charge less for the lifetimers.

In any case, it’s a good game with plenty to see and do, especially for Tolkien fans. And although no one knows what the future holds, it’s as good an offer as you are likely to get for the lifetime subscription.

Perks for the Old Timers

Star Trek Online recently announced a slew of perks for lifetime subscribers.  Cryptic liked the idea so much that they offered similar perks to Champions Online players as well.

Customers who are dedicated to being with either of these games for the long run get a special chat channel, VIP lounge in game, title, costume piece, and the ability to skip to the front of the queue any time the game has login queues.

I’m not a lifetime sub holder for either of those games, but I think it’s a great idea. After all, the lifetime players are potentially the core of the player base. They are the people who liked the game so much that they put up a lifetime sub up front, which is a kind of pledge to say that they are interested in seeing how it develops and will be inclined to keep dropping in. If you are a committed player, one of your big issues up front is knowing that so many of the people you meet when the game is new will not still be there in a month or two’s time.

It’s very easy to put a lot of energy into forming guilds, making friends, laying down foundations for long term game relationships and then find … that your guild and group of friends has vaporised. So having a chat channel and meeting room for other players who are in for the long term can at least offer the option to hang out with other people who are less likely to just vanish.

City of Heroes took another approach. They offered  account rewards to players who had subscribed for different amounts of time. On your characters three-month/six-month/etc birthday, the new item would appear, as if it was a kind of gift. Here’s the list of CoH veteran rewards – they include titles, pets, costume pieces, wings… and towards the longer end of the spectrum, extra abilities and perks are also included.

I’ve always been dubious of this scheme because I see how keen my husband is to keep his sub active even when he isn’t really playing much CoH, and it’s because he’s keen not to lose any possible future veteran rewards. But it doubtless works well for NCSoft.

(Note: I have nothing against gambling. I just don’t see the point in paying a sub for a game you don’t play. If these perks could be bought from the cash shop, I’d think nothing of it.)

EVE Online is notorious for its real time training system, which means that a new player will never have as many abilities as an older one. They cannot catch up. A new player can still be effective, they just won’t have the wide range of skills to choose from. So in a sense, flexibility is the EVE veteran reward. And after a point, either CCP start to put in new abilities (where everyone starts to train at the same time) or else diminishing returns means that the effect isn’t very marked in most situations.

Old vs New, Lifetime vs Sub

As I play LOTRO, I wonder if the player community is fragmented between lifetime subscribers and regular subscribers. The lifetime group know that they all will probably keep coming back, although they may also take long breaks, whereas regular subs might get bored and decide to quit at any time.

Lifetimers, because they’re more committed, are also more likely to pursue some of the grindier endgame options. They’re more likely to have maxed out crafting, more likely to have several alts, more likely to be raiding. I know that if I need crafting done, it’s likely to be one of the lifetime players who I will ask, because they have the maxed out skills.

Of course, there will also be lifetime players who later went off the game. Maybe they felt they got their moneys worth and lost interest, or maybe they just took a long break, forgot to come back, and then felt it wasn’t worth the effort. But you won’t generally meet them in game (because they aren’t there!)

I’m not entirely sure what they think of transient me. Even my recent three month stint is probably a drop in the ocean to lifetime players, who think more in terms of years than of months. (It’s kind of like being a hobbit in amongst the elves!) This is not to say that they aren’t all very nice, they are. But I like the sense that the community has different depths, and that there’s a place for different levels of commitment to the game.

What is a good veteran reward?

It is generally assumed in MMOs that the more time you put in, the more your character will progress. So there’s always been a vague notion that people who have played longer and put in more hours deserve to have better characters.

Unfortunately, if this was actually true, it would be difficult to attract new players. It’s not impossible; a design like EVEs which rewards old timers with more flexibility still leaves room for a newbie to play alongside the rest of the playerbase.

So the best of the veteran rewards compensate the vets for the fact that they are not actually immortal demigods compared to newer players, and for the fact that endgame is often reset with each expansion.

Probably the best ever veteran rewards came with MUDs, which allowed longterm players to become imps (implementors) and help create new areas and quests in the game. Others included new veteran classes, that could only be started if you had one character at max level (Death Knights in WoW are a similar type of reward).

But it is an interesting and ongoing issue. MMO Devs would like to reward longterm players, if only because it encourages people to keep playing. (This is irrespective of whether the game is paid by subs or a cash shop.) But they have to find a way to do it that won’t put off the new blood which they also so desperately need.

In that context, I think Cryptic has done a good job with their lifetime rewards. Time will tell.

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.

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.