Spurious Gaming Predictions for 2013

My predictions for last year missed the boat on some of the big news stories, although some of the other general comments aren’t too far off and I think I did get that both Diablo 3 and MoP would sell hugely. (Actually even then I was noting that my previous predictions were bad, so there’s a pattern forming here.)

I wondered if the sheen would have rubbed off F2P. I’m sure plenty of F2P games are still doing fine, but Zynga’s plunging share price, and Turbine’s layoffs are making it pretty clear that it’s not the be all and end all of gaming monetisation. With a solid game and pricing model behind them, Riot’s LoL and wargaming.net’s World of Tanks still look to be doing very well. But the sense of ‘Switch every game to F2P!’ that was pervasive at the start of last year isn’t quite how things look now.

I thought SWTOR would be really successful. We know how that worked out. It wasn’t due to being a bad game per se, many people really enjoyed what Bioware brought to the table. But when your definition of successful involves millions of people taking out longterm subscriptions (and when you’ve spent so much money on development that you NEED those millions of long term subs), then you’re largely doomed regardless of how good the game is or isn’t. Yes, the endgame was deeply lacking, which is why they couldn’t sustain the 500k they claimed that they needed. But what they had was fun (in PvE at least). I’m glad the game was made and that I got to play it.

I’m not trying to rescue my rubbish SWTOR prediction but I did say:

Better legs in this case may mean stays strong for 6 months rather than 3, it’ll be down to Bioware in the end to persuade people to stick with it.

I thought TSW would get mixed reviews and a small but dedicated hardcore following. Which is true, and again they weren’t able to sustain the sub numbers that they needed, hence the switch to B2P. It doesn’t mean the game is a failure in terms of gameplay, but something went wrong in the planning/ budgeting/ prediction department.

I thought CCP might see falling numbers. Actually the numbers they have released show that the opposite has happened. The dev team clearly managed to pull some patches out of the bag which pleased the core player base and improved the confidence players have in the game. I’m not sure why they might have attracted new players though, so it may be that this sub increase is due to expanding into new regions or core players buying more accounts.

What’s in Store for 2013

Mobile was a huge story last year and with the increasing numbers of tablets being sold, that can only increase. I personally find tablets a much better platform for games than mobile phones, mostly because I like to save my phone battery for making calls. Also better screen size. Some of the better mobile games I’ve seen with MMOish features are based around collectible cards (like Rage of Bahamut and Shadow Era) – I think we’ll see more of those. They are currently aggressively monetised and that trend can only continue, at least until players desert in large numbers. Hopefully someone will develop a good card based game with a F2P model that isn’t actively painful, until then there is always Duel of the Planeswalkers.

With respect to the games industry, EA  in particular have had a rocky year. Whether they can sustain another without some major changes I’m not sure. There will be more shakeups, and probably more big name failures and layoffs, sadly.

The ongoing competition between Android and iOS continues. Android devices will continue to outsell Apple. The reason that so many devs still develop for Apple first is because metrics show that Apple owners spend more on apps. This is probably a self fulfulling prophecy and we should see more apps jumping to Android next year. (Obviously cross platform games would be better for consumers but you can assume there isn’t much drive for that.)

The ongoing evolution of F2P monetisation continues. This year the trend has been towards convergence of MMOs/Persistent online games and other types of multi player games. For example, with CODBLOPS2 you buy the game and get access to the multiplayer, and can then buy DLC over the year. Similar with ME3 (where I’m told the multiplayer is great). You can compare this with GW2 or the updated TSW where you buy the boxed game, can play the MMO/multiplayer for free, and have a cash shop/ DLC which you can also buy. This convergence trend will continue and there will also be more games that are based on converging multi player with persistence.

Crowdfunding continues to draw attention, but it will become clearer that the games with smaller and more developed scopes are better bets for your kickstarter money. This will not stop people from throwing money at crowdpleasing favourites, but it’s only a matter of time before some big crowdfunded game fails to implement the wildly optimistic initial plans and disappoints hugely.

Rift will continue to lose players slowly as it settles on a core playerbase who prefer it to other offerings enough to pay a subscription. I don’t expect them to move to F2P but there may be more enticing offers for returning players.

I do predict that far from seeing the death of subscription games, we’ll see more games try a subscription model. But they will be small niche games focussed on a core player group, with long betas and careful market testing. The day of the new large AAA MMO sub game is likely over, unless anyone wants to try it with cheap subs.

More and different genres will join the fray. This year Dust and Planetside 2 have led the charge on FPS MMOish games. We’ll see more sports games and RTS MMOs this year. I’m dubious about whether Dust will fulfill CCPs hopes, given how much it must have cost to develop. If they can’t attract the player base they need, we’ll see them lose staff and that may affect EVE.

Although fantasy MMOs feel tired at the moment, the interest in multiplayer persistent gaming is still huge.

The ethics of different types of monetisation/ design will continue to be widely debated, while devs try to find a way to make profits and keep the players entertained without actually killing any staff or players in the process. Mobile will continue to have the most aggressive monetisation strategies, partly because it’s a young person’s platform (yeah I know there are oldies too) and they’re just more susceptible. Plus more disposable income, if we weren’t in the middle of a triple dip recession.

Emphasis on storytelling has been another theme this year, and we’ve seen both the upsides and downsides of this. Players do like good storytelling and will buy games on that basis. They also get invested and very very angry if they’re not happy with how the stories are going (see: ME3 ending). And storytelling is expensive in terms of MMO content. The Walking Dead’s episodic content is however bang on trend with current monetisation trends so hopefully more games will follow that pattern.

SWTOR’s ‘expansion’ will be successful if they can keep the quality up, despite not including class storylines. (There won’t BE any more class storylines.) There are plenty of players who liked the game and want more story who will come try the F2P offering and pay to try the new content.

Blizzard will announce something about Titan this year, even if it is just that it is either delayed or has been abandoned (I don’t think they’ll be able to abandon it, since they do need to be working on something new, but I’m not really sure what they might come up with.) They will also announce an expansion for Diablo 3. And while their current content release schedule for MoP is really solid, it’ll run out of steam by the end of the year.

Wildstar will be terrible. I predict this because it has Bunnygirls, so you know what their target audience is. And also because they want to completely separate playstyles like building and PvP. This means they either have to have separate deep compelling games in multiple genres or a fully functional sandbox. Since I haven’t heard anything that makes me think they’re going to do either of these, I don’t expect much from this game apart from pretty and flashy graphics.

The Elder Scrolls Online may surprise MMO players as a solid entry in the field IF the devs can keep the costs down and their expectations reasonable. I don’t know how possible it will be to keep costs down and produce the kind of fully realised virtual world that Skyrim fans will expect, so I am dubious about this one but willing to be convinced.

We will no doubt hear more about sandbox games, as EQNext and Pathfinder are both aiming to dip into the fantasy sandbox arena. I think this will get players excited by hype, but ultimately sandbox games are for the hardcore unless devs find a way to provide a social sandbox function and I don’t think either of these devs are tending that way. (ie. so many excited players will be disappointed by the realities of the sandbox if they launch.)

Every year I predict DaoC2. Maybe this will be that year.

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Predictions for MMOs/ Gaming in 2011

It is that time when we look ahead and try to predict what the year ahead may bring. Arbitrary and I have put our heads together to see what we can come up with…

In general, it’s going to be another huge year for both social gaming and mobile gaming. There will be more massive hits along the lines of Angry Birds, and both iPhones and Android will continue to be strong platforms. We’ll see the trend for Android to increase in popularity continue as more and more models come onto the market.

The debate as to what does or doesn’t constitute an MMO will continue. Facebook will continue as the platform of choice for social games, particularly on handsets, since it actually is handset agnostic.

The iPad will not really live up to the potential that the industry had hoped. Already we’re seeing that magazine subscriptions on the iPad are below predictions. There will be popular games, yes, but they will never come close to the popularity of the phone-based versions. So iPad owners had best get used to continuing to receive iPhone conversions.

I predict something big with Zynga this year. They’re huge, but they’ve not had much success in breaking away from Facebook. The desire to do so is still there … maybe they’ll even try to take over FB or merge the companies in some way. Whatever it is, it’ll be crazy.

E-sports will be a big trend this year in some form or other, as publishers try to find more ways to draw in the ‘core audience’ into more social, F2P type games. Expect at least one hugely successful multiplayer game, possibly on a console or on Facebook, with this kind of worldwide e-sports competitive ethos at its core.

One of the other big trends this year was for breakout indie games. This is nothing new, but Minecraft in particular has been a stunning hit. In addition, the various Steam indie bundles, more attention from PC journalists and blogs, and ‘pay what you want’ weekend offers have gotten more people to try them out than ever before. This trend continues, and we’ll see at least one successful indie MMO launch this year.

Interactive/ internet TV is going to be another big trend this year. Look for gaming on Google TV in particular (one area where Zynga may have their eye). And this is a platform that favours simple social games.

This year also marks the release of the Nintendo 3DS, the 3D version of the DS. Whilst it will sell well enough to be marked as a success, they will signally fail to persuade most users to upgrade. However nice the graphics, there’s unlikely to be a killer game that really uses the 3D. (If it played films, however …) This won’t be a good year for handhelds, losing more ground to the ubiquitous smartphones.

WoW/ Blizzard

This year Blizzard plays it safe with WoW. There won’t be any big features analogous to the dungeon finder. Patches will be more of the raid instance, dailies, extra minigames type of content.

Whilst some players will get bored quickly of Cataclysm, the strategy to draw in more casual players will work, by and large.

The balance of ranged vs melee is going to continue to be a big feature of this expansion.

The leaked expansion plans date the next expansion for 2010. I predict this is correct and we’ll hear more about the next expansion and about Blizzard’s plans to offer more frequent, smaller expansions. Wrath will soon be perceived as the golden age of WoW in much the same way that TBC was by the old guard for most of Wrath.

The big change for the next expansion will be a crafting revamp.

Blizzcon will be held in Europe.

Blizzard will announce their next game, currently codenamed Titan. It will, as expected, be a different genre from WoW. (Please take a moment to imagine what the WoW community might be like if Blizzard’s next game is a FPS. Heck, imagine what the Blizzard community for a FPS MMO might be like? Scared yet? This is why they will come back with a more player friendly version of realID.)

Other games

Guild Wars 2 will not release in 2011.

Neither will World of Darkness (Vampire).

Neither will The Secret World

The walking in stations expansion for EVE will release and will generate a flurry of ‘look at this amazing character creator’ posts. It will not substantially expand the player base, though and will largely be seen by existing players as watering down the current game.

Star Wars: the Old Republic will release and will fail to either gain a million subscribers or to be a game people want to play for 10 years (both predictions made by EA). It may even fail completely within 6 months. (I will still play it.)

Mark Jacobs will announce a new project, DaoC 2.

There will be more discussion about the F2P model as it applies to MMOs, focussing more on practical details of ‘what works’. People will pick their games at least as much based on payment models as anything else, to the point of having preferences for very specific flavours of F2P.

There will also be extended discussions in the blogosphere about how trustworthy various publishers are viewed as being. This is partly connected with games that failed in 2010 (do you trust this game to still be going in 6 months before you invest too much time into it?) but also with the way the F2P model has been implemented by companies such as SOE.

LOTRO will release their Isengard expansion which will be comparable in size to Mirkwood. ie. a couple of levelling zones, new instances, and a raid. They will increasingly be spread thin trying to keep both the lifetime endgame player base happy and the new F2P players who are more interested in lower level revamps.

2011 is a big year for RPGs. In fact, it will probably also be the biggest year ever for computer games in general.

Diablo III will release, will be a massive success. It will contain various features borrowed from WoW, and so the cycle comes full circle.

Dragon Age II will release, will be a massive success.

Mass Effect III will release, will be a massive success.

The Witcher II will release, will be a massive success (but possibly not on the scale of the previous three games, which is a shame.)

And not a RPG, but yes, Portal II will release, will be a massive success.

Whatever Infinity Ward does for EA will release, will be a massive success.

There will be at least one film tie in game that is actually good, and will be a massive success.

Microsoft attempt to clean up the Xbox Live community in some way, possibly involving an element of realID.

Blue Booking, PvE Grind, and what do we do in games inbetween scheduled groups?

I have been thinking recently about the patterns in which I tend to play MMOs. I’ve been spending more time in LOTRO recently, and my guild there is mostly made up of older players. They’re grumpy and proud, and they are very very good at organising their gaming to fit lifestyles which involve kids, non-gaming commitments, and a mix of casual and hardcore players. They are also awesome (if any of you are reading this!)

This means a lot of scheduled runs, even for small 3 man groups. Of course you can just log in, see who is around, and put a group together, but players with time limitations prefer to be able to arrange their free time in advance. I’ve noticed that players are also quite conscientious about notifying the other people involved if something comes up in advance and they can’t make it. I’m sure there are also a lot of informal but pre-arranged levelling groups and skirmish groups which don’t use the bboards and calendar to organise.

And this reminds me a lot of my old pen and paper groups. We’d have regular gaming nights and if anyone couldn’t make it then they’d let the rest of us know.

It’s a good rhythm for any organised group hobby. You have ‘group’ nights. And then if you want to work quietly on your hobby you can either skip a group night or do it when no one else is around, or at home.

But I’m interested in what it means to work quietly on your hobby if your hobby is an MMO. Because these games tend to be based on progression, then either time spent solo will progress your character (in which case all min/maxers will feel they must do it) or else there is some other purpose.

Blue Booking in RPGs

Blue Booking is a pen and paper technique that has dipped in and out of popularity. And it is all about immersively answering the question, “What does my character do in between scenarios?” You can imagine a pen and paper scenario as a short story. A  bunch of people turning up to a group and improvising their way through a brief storyline which consists of a plot hook, a few scenes, some conversation, roleplaying, fights, and a conclusion.

So if your character’s life is a bunch of short stories (think of it as an anthology) then what happens inbetween?

The idea was that players could try to answer that question and the GM would award xp for good efforts. They might write a short story explaining what their character had done, or was trying to do, after the last scenario. Maybe it would represent a day in that character’s life, or introduce some of their family or friends who the GM could use in scenarios later.  Players might draw pictures or use any other type of creative activity to do this. They might have a private chat via email with other players to discuss what their characters were getting up to, and then let the GM know later.

And if a RPG scenario is like an instance (which it isn’t really, apart from the fighting) then MMOs answer the same question by actually letting players play through some of what their characters do between group adventures. But of course, RPGs are all about roleplaying so we expect players to seek immersive answers. MMOs – for a lot of people – have almost nothing to do with roleplaying at all. Most players won’t care what their character is doing between fighting dragons.

And yet, MMO design is so rooted in old immersive goals that these things tend to be built in anyway. The origin of our grinds is not just to keep people playing but to answer the question, so what does your character do when they aren’t killing dragons?

  • Maybe they are a crafter or tradesman, and have to keep up with the day to day demands of running a business. (In MMOs, that means gathering, crafting, playing the auction house or otherwise toying with the economy.)
  • Maybe they have an active social life with friends, parties, drama, love affairs. (Roleplaying.)
  • Maybe they are involved in defending their homelands. (PvP … sort of.)
  • Maybe they just like wandering the world (not really much to do in most MMOs here.)
  • Maybe they are ambitious and are trying to impress superiors in some organisation? (reputation grind.)
  • Maybe they are ambitious and trying to impress other players in an organisation, for example in their guild. (Organise guild activities, offer to help with guild website, other out of game activities.)

And you can see that PvE grinds and activities try to replace the notion of the blue book, with some occasional success. Many possible activities are not modelled at all (which is a shame because it would give non-raiders more to do in the endgame). Others are not well supported because devs just don’t like or understand the gameplay (like roleplaying.)

But truth is, the majority of players will prefer to log off and do something else in between adventures. They won’t want to play out every single thing their character does, or even the majority of it.

And here is where the blue booking side comes in. Even players who don’t want to spend hours gathering to simulate the crafting activities that their character does might still be interested in having the activity recorded. There are games where you can set your character to do something useful while you are logged off. You don’t need to actually pick all the grass. Maybe you could just leave your character to do it and then when you log back in the next day, your packs are full.

And this I think is where the opportunities are for integrating casual or even mobile gaming with an MMO. What does my character do between adventures could be answered with ‘runs a farm’, for example. I don’t honestly know if this is the way that MMOs will go; for every EVE which is trying to integrate a MMO with a shooter (Dust), there will be others who decide it’s easier just to leave separate games to be separate. WoW is looking to battle.net and the RealID to push the solution that says, “I play SC2 while my WoW character is not involved in anything,” for example.

But I am intrigued by the possibility of finding more and more varied answers to the question, “What does my character do in between group runs,” in MMOs.

It’s so hard to walk and chew gum…

There’s a really common convention in MMOs that you can’t move around while casting a spell. It’s fine to have fireworks going off all around you, to be hit in the face with a giant hammer, to be tripping over your robes, standing knee deep in a river or watch your comrades being ripped limb from limb … but heaven forfend that you might take a sidestep to the right.

I’ve never  been really sure where this came from, I think it’s a relic from a more wargamey past where caster units had their movement penalised to give melee a chance to catch up and kill them.

On the odd occasion when I’ve played a character that could walk and chew gum at the same time (aka cast on the move, or use lots of instant cast spells) it was great fun to be more mobile. Although it does your head in getting used to playing a class which can cast on the move and has a casting time. If you play a caster, would you like to be more mobile?