Dragon Age: Facebook

It was only a matter of time. In the run up to Dragon Age II, a new themed Facebook game called Dragon Age: Legends is being launched by Bioware. And you can sign up to the beta today. It’s going to introduce us to the region of the Free Marches, the primary setting for Dragon Age II. In the same vein as the web-based game that was released in the run up to Dragon Age: Origins, playing the game will give some unlocks for the main game when launched.

Dragon Age: Legends is only due to release one month before Dragon Age II, sometime in February 2011.

Screenshots, forums and a blog are linked to from the Dragon Age: Legends site, which is a little sparse so far, but one to watch.

[Funnily enough, Spinks and I were chatting about Dragon Age II the other day while both placing our pre-orders, and at the time we expressed how much we'd liked the web-based game (Dragon Age: Journeys I think was the name) and how we hoped they'd be another. Good timing, Bioware.]

Gaming News: Lord British takes NCSoft to the cleaners, EQ2 goes free to play, Where will the social gaming acquisition madness end?, WAR comes to the Bioware forums

Lots of business news this week with some ludicrous amounts of money changing hands over ownership of social gaming developers and sites.

In other news, good luck to the folks at the new WoW shaman forum (totemspot.com) and new mage forums at Mana Obscura. You’ll likely see lots of class blogger names that you recognise on both fora.

Also if you are a keen reader of MMO blogs (I am going to assume this will apply to most readers, otherwise why are you here?), check out the new MMO Melting Pot. Their goal is to pick out interesting posts from around the web, with commentary. And they also keep tabs on podcasts et al. As of now, it’s very WoW-focussed.

Richard Garriot wins lawsuit against NCSoft

The sad story of Richard Garriot (aka Lord British) and his dealings with NCSoft finally comes to a close. This is more of an employment law story than a gaming one, but he claimed that he was forced to resign from his post as NCSoft Austin CEO and then to write letters claiming that it was a voluntary redundancy.

This matters hugely in terms of what sorts of payments he was entitled to on leaving. You tend to have more rights to redundancy pay et al if you are fired than if you choose to leave.

A court decided in his favour and awarded $28million in lieu of the lost pay. I’m always happy when I see companies which try to pull a fast one on employees nailed down by employment law, most of which doesn’t represent all that much protection for employees anyway. Hopefully others in the industry will take note.

Everquest 2 Extended

EQ2 is going to offer a free to play payment option, on separate servers from the current ones – I think I’m rapidly preferring non-subscription over F2P for games funded by microtransactions. Their plans confuse commenters who note that the F2P servers will also have subscription options which offer fewer options than the current subscriptions for the same (or higher) price.

I’m not all that certain that EQ2 will really suit the model, but I’m sure lots more people will at least give the game a try when the new options go live. And it’s another step in the seemingly unstoppable trend towards switching from subscriptions to cash shop payment options. Or at least adding different payment options.

This all seems very experimental to me at the moment. But the separate servers and unimpressive F2P subscription options mean EQ2 at least has plans to dissuade existing subscribers who play casually from immediately switching over and paying less. (Ideally you don’t want players to say ‘you know, suddenly my $15pcm subscription doesn’t look like such great value, I only play  a couple of hours a week …’)

Social Gaming Acquisition Madness – Disney buys Playdom, Gamestop buys Kongregate

Only a few weeks ago, Playdom bought Ralph Koster’s Metaplace. Now they in their turn have been acquired by Disney for the heart-stopping sum of approx $560mill; a little less than that for which the mouse house sold subsidiary Miramax earlier in the month. (note: you may have seen the figure $762mil around the place, that part is actually dependent on Playdom’s performance).

So Disney thinks that social gaming is a better bet than Hollywood, and they may be right. They certainly own a vast number of IPs that could prove fruitful for gaming purposes. But that’s a lot of money for a gaming studio that isn’t right at the top of its field. Or even second. The eMarketer blog has a pithy analysis, wondering whether this will go down in history as one of the notorious acquisitions of the decade. In comparison, EA’s $275mil for Playfish last year looks like a bargain.

US chain gaming retail store Gamestop bought PC casual gaming nexus Kongregate this week also. Kongregate is a great site, home to many great tower defence games, The Elements card game, and doubtless many others I haven’t heard of. They are very upbeat about the news in their blog, unsurprisingly.

But as a non-US person, I can’t imagine that Gamestop has a lot to offer me in terms of things to buy with tokens. This is a general problem with going from a bricks and mortar business into the internet – suddenly you are serving a worldwide population who really don’t care about your US based restaurant/ movie/ netflix rewards. It’s likely they’ll concentrate on the US customers, if driving people to their US outlets is seen as the core of their business.

Note: We see the same trend in twitter with their @earlybird offers. I haven’t seen a single one that would be applicable locally. I really think they should call it @usearlybird or just do internet based offers.

Zynga also have evidently decided that the mere 500 million Facebook users is insufficient of a user base and is exploring new opportunities with google, and also in Japan. They also annoyed players this week by shutting down one of their games, with no reason. (I assume the reason is insufficient profit but these games can’t cost all that much to run …)

In any case, with Disney switching from films into social gaming, Warner Brothers recent acquisition of Turbine, Gamestop looking to online social gaming rather than retail … there is a trend here.

Valve (with Steam) and Blizzard (with battle.net) must be laughing.

Warhammer Forums move to Bioware

Speaking of which, the Bioware social network has recently absorbed the official Warhammer Online forums. I love that if you get to the language option screen on the Bioware forum, they use the Canadian flag to represent English. I’m sure the Quebecois are thrilled to bits with that.

None of the blogs I read had much to say about this, I’m not sure anyone was actually fond enough of the Official Warhammer Forums to care. Besides, it isn’t as if they are going away.

In other Bioware news, Greg Zeschuk has decided that his previous figure of 1 million SWTOR players wasn’t enough. Now he says the sales target of all future releases is 10 million units if they are to be considered major hits.

I’m not entirely sure what to say about this. Over the lifetime of a very successful game, 10 million sales is viable. Or maybe he’s just inhaled too much of the Brighton sea air …

Starcraft 2 is live and on air

Starcraft 2 launched this week, and players and reviewers alike seem pretty happy with it. The press were not allowed to review the single player campaign before launch so I imagine there have been a lot of gaming hours poured into the thing. Kotaku report that someone finished the single player campaign in 16 hours.

Gossip Gamer has a cool visual guide to show the difference between SC1 and SC2. And meanwhile, I saved the Norad II in SC1 – go me!

Some guest posts on the way next week

This is not really news but I’m away for a few days next week so you’ll see some guest posts on the blog here. I think you guys will love them, actually.

Why I hate Farmville, and where is social gaming taking us?

Hate is such a strong word. Let’s go instead with ‘dislike’, as Cuppy did in her post about Why do traditional gamers dislike Farmville?

My personal main reason for disliking it is that I actually have never been fond of farming games – I never liked farming berries in Pokemon, or farming anything in LOTRO, and I got bored of Harvest Moon fairly quickly too.

Other reasons are:

  • it’s on Facebook
  • a large part of their business plan is to do with selling advertising, so they design the game to give best value to the advertisers
  • and  their game design is rather cynical

Yup, Facebook is a turnoff for me. I’ve heard advocates of social gaming argue (convincingly) that casual gamers don’t want the hassle of logging into a special game client whenever they want to play. That’s what Facebook is like for me, it’s just not a website I’d tend to have open on a regular basis.

This means that I am not the target for Facebook games.

And since social games are so very very tightly wound in with Facebook’s insanely huge user base, this will make it sound as though I dislike all social games on principle. Which is not actually true, because I’ve rather liked the story based games like Echo Bazaar and even D&D Tiny Adventures.

But still, some Facebook games are terrifically cynical. All that prodding to invite a zillion people you barely know to receive a virtual pig, all the suspect ads, these are things that people put up with because they like the basic game. And just as MMOs evolved to lose more and more of the tedious shit that people put up with because they had no choice, social games will also evolve. I am quite sure that just as modern day MMO players complain about how they were ‘forced to group’ by older games, social gamers will one day complain about how the older games forced them to poke their ‘friends’ for stuff if they wanted to progress faster.

I just hope they do it sooner rather than later.

Advertising vs Subscription

Let’s talk about TV. In the UK we have several channels. We also have to pay an annual TV licence if we want to receive terrestrial channels at  home (it works out about £11 per month, just over a standard MMO sub), which is used to fund the BBC amongst other things.

So the BBC is funded by (mandated) subscription. Commercial channels are funded by advertising. Which one do you think produces the best quality programmes? And which produces the more popular programmes?

The BBC is generally higher quality, but the ratings war is far more evenly divided. Commercial channels are very motivated to produce content that will attract eyeballs for their advertisers, so they’re very smart at digging into pop culture. The cost of the pop culture fans getting the content they want is that they’re actually forced to subsidise the BBC which they may rarely use – but they get their fave programmes for free so they’ll never really notice. It’s an odd model, but arguably, no news network as good as the BBCs could have evolved without it.

So, enough about TV, how does this relate to gaming?

Well, you could imagine the ‘traditional’ gaming model where a company produces something that gamers want and then they pay for it, as being like the BBC. And then social games, with their emphasis towards gathering eyeballs for advertisers, being more like the commercial channels. All of these guys want your money, but the social games will settle for your eyeballs instead if that’s all they can get. And advertisers consider the spend worthwhile because they know that X% of people who watch ads buy product. Of course, social games don’t just monetize off advertising (in fact, I’m not even sure it’s the primary funder). But they know, like advertisers, that X% of players will also pay for virtual goods. So the more people they get to play, the more money they get. Even a nil paying customer might have friends who will pay.

The other bonus with current social games is that they have been exceptionally cheap to produce in comparison with traditional AAA games, a fact that is also true of commercial TV content which tends to lean heavily on quizzes, imported American TV,  and reality shows.

And just like commercial channels, social games have a huge future if they can tap into pop culture. And I look forwards to seeing them do exactly this.

Culture Clash, and Gamer Sexism

Another interesting thing that is happening with social gaming and Farmville in particular, is that a new mass market of gamers is working out how its market will work.

In the same way that WoW’s subscription effectively set the bar for how much MMO gamers expect to pay for their subscriptions, Farmville’s F2P model is setting the way social gamers expect to pay. And how much they expect to pay, which for 98% of them is approximately zero. (The figure I have seen before is that about 2% of the playerbase pay, although Zynga’s chief game designer quoted 3-5% in an interview last February – but he was also including people who sign up to any advertiser offer that generates cash for the developer.)

I also am amused by the notion that just as there are MMO gamers who demand that all their games be similar (it must be fantasy with elves, it must have a pet class, it must have an auction house, it must have etc etc etc), there are social gamers who won’t touch anything except a farming game with a suitable subset of activities.

In any case, I think F2P  leads to a different type of consumer/ developer relationship. To go back to TV, if you watch subscription TV and see something you don’t like, then you complain. If it’s commercial TV then you turn it off or switch channel. But then, although TV flirts occasionally with ways to become more addictive, it can’t really get its hooks into people in the way that a game can.

One other comment that Cuppy made in her article that caught my eye was:

It’s made for the office receptionist who logs in on her lunch break.  It’s made for moms, teens, non-gamers, grandmas, housewives, and those with little time on their hands.

So she thinks that the playerbase is mostly female, non-professional, and possibly non-economically productive. I’m not so sure, but then I don’t see the numbers.

In any case, if we criticise Farmville, are we being sexist? Is it like people bitching about Twilight or Titanic because they think it’s horrible that mass media aimed at women can be so successful? (ie. how can my wife/girlfriend/mum like that shit? She saw it X times!!!)

I say no. It depends entirely on what grounds you criticise it. Popular media has to be accessible, and whilst some people will complain because they just hate all pop culture and everything to do with it, there’s no reason why a popular book or film can’t be well written AND accessible. No reason why social games have to be grindy, cynical, unimaginitive advert-fests.

And also, ‘traditional’ gamers never did come out of their basements in droves to bitch about minesweeper or solitaire, even though these are probably still the most popular of all computer games, mostly with a female playerbase. They don’t complain about casual friendly games like Bejewelled, or puzzle games like Professor Layton, or even Pokemon. This is because they’re all actually good games.

To be honest, traditional gamers are also derisive of MMOs in general, never mind social games. And with some justification, because they aren’t really well designed as games. People play them for other reasons.

In any case, the proof of the pudding will be in how gamers respond to the new wave of social games. In particular, it will be interesting to see how people feel about Civilisation when that drops onto Facebook later this year. Will people be seduced by a game that does offer gameplay they like?

We’ll see. 60+ million people is not a number that can be easily ignored, and social gaming is transforming the face of the internet, never mind just the face of gaming. And I suspect many other traditional gamers are wondering for how long they’ll keep getting their high production, expensive games when game designers can see a cheaper path to higher profit and a bigger market.

It came from GDC: Are achievements harmful?

Untold Entertainment posts a great roundup of some of the sessions he attended at GDC (Game Developers Conference) yesterday.

I don’t have a lot to add, but I wanted to share this particularly for his coverage of a controversial talk about Achievements. It’s about halfway down the blog post.

Chris Hecker (the speaker) questioned the conventional wisdom that achievements are the future, and wondered whether they’re actually good for games. Or whether it’s just that game developers are leaning too heavily on prodding people into repetitive dull activities via rewards (i.e. Farmville) when they could be using achievements to actually make their games more fun and engaging.

Hecker took on Jesse Schell’s oft-blogged talk from DICE 2010, where he imagined a world where everything around you gave you points – your toothbrush gave you points for brushing, the government gave you points or money for raising your kids well, etc. Hecker suggested that Schell and two other respected colleagues were talking out of their collective asses, because they haven’t looked at the research, which says (among other things) that when you pay a kid for getting good grades, the kid’s grades subsequently drop.

So if you get people into the mindset of doing an activity just to get a reward, they’re less likely to do it afterwards without the reward, or when the reward gets deprecated.

I thought it was a fascinating read, and I bet it was a cool talk also. This is a link to Gamasutra’s coverage of the same talk.

If on a winter’s night a links page …

1. Zynga and the End of the Beginning. This is a long but brilliant essay on Gamasutra about the state of social games and where we go from here. There’s a lot of hard and sound thinking here about how these games work and why they are so popular. I thought it was fascinating.

The premise is that people will get bored quickly of social facebook games. Then they’ll look for games with more depth.

Here’s a few choice quotes:

Viral game developers, such as Zynga, have little or no commitment to developing deep or rich game experiences because the market has not really rewarded that kind of activity.

Veterans share as a means of expression and identity. What you share says something about who you are, and so the risk of bad sharing is that of damaged reputation. Few veterans want a reputation as a spammer. So they no longer pass on every Youtube clip that comes their way to all of their friends.

Entertainment is like dating. You should always strive to be sexy.  Sexiness is all about creativity, credibility, charisma and character. <…> Zynga has no sex appeal.

2. Should monsters surrender? Andrew Doull develops roguelikes, and he’s wondering whether to put in an option for monsters to surrender to players if they are losing. I remember playing D&D games where we refused to kill the orc town and demanded that the GM allow us to get them to surrender instead (you can do that in pen and paper games) but in MMOs the monster is typically either alive and fighting  you, or dead at your feet.

3. Girly Pally wonders if WoW can bring world peace. On an EU server we are almost always playing with people from different countries. Does this broaden our horizons?

4. Dragon Age: Origins – Awakening. IGN interviews Fernando Melo of Bioware about the forthcoming DAO expansion. If you didn’t know about this expansion then go read the interview, there’s lots of information there.

5. Chastity at Righteous Orbs looks at the ups and downs of using the dungeon finder for levelling characters. Bonus points for screenie of cool undead warrior chick. Is it sad that I knew that was a warrior instantly because I recognised the low level chest and legs? I had those once! (Does anyone else ever get nostalgic like this with other people’s alts?)

6. petter at Don’t fear the mutant is a great writer and he’s knocked out a couple of  articles that caught my eye recently. What’s wrong with this looking for dungeon picture? is his response to Elnia’s provocative column comparing LFG to cheap porn.

When I’m playing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, I am thrown into a group of strangers. We have one common goal – to win over the other team. If we win over the other team, we get bonus XP. Bonus XP leads to more unlocked weapons. I don’t talk to them, they hardly talk to me, most of us know more or less where to go and what to do. If someone is under-performing, they run the risk of getting downrated. Does this mean CoD:MW2 is like porn?

In Hello Levelling, My Old Friend he talks about why he’s tired of levelling in game after game. I sympathise with this one, my LOTRO experience is mostly a solo one of following in everyone else’s footsteps about six months after they did everything. Sometimes you just want to go play with other people and not be forced through several months of solo levelling first.

7. The SWTOR team unveil Dromund Kaas (and all the germans are now wondering what cheese has to do with it), the seat of the empire in the old republic. Maybe I am just a sucker for dark gothic settings but this one strikes me as way more interesting than just about all the other planets they have highlighted so far. Maybe I won’t end up playing a smuggler after all. Or maybe republic  will be able to take package tours there?

8. Arbitrary is having fun persuading people that if they run instances backwards without their pants on, there’s a better chance of getting a rare drop. Gamers are superstitious folk. And Onyxia deep breaths more this patch.

9. A High Latency Life presents their 10 rules for running PUGS:

  • If thou is unhappy with something, do not complain, take charge and create/ lead your own PUG to the promise lands.

10. Looking for some more fantasy reading matter? Several MMO bloggers share their favourites (What no vampire romances? I’m disappointed, guys):

Syp also posts a thoughtful look at how we feel about games that we’ve tried and then left.

I can’t promise to never talk about a past MMO, or if I do so, to always couch my words in a positive light.  That’s just not honest to my writing.  But I do promise to consider how people feel who play these games, and to let a grudge or gripe go when I’ve said my piece, instead of chewing it up over and over again.

Playing for fun in MMOs

‘Fun’ is one of those words which means different things to different people.

Of course, we’re all playing games for fun. For some that means immersive worlds with great storytelling, for others it’ll mean good competitive games with fair rulesets, a laid back social space with dress-up dolls, hardcore PvP, or some combination of all of those things, depending on their mood.

But when I take part in a game or sports and someone suggests, “Let’s play for fun?” it has a very specific meaning. It means that they don’t want a competitive game. We’ll either ignore any rules to do with scoring, or keep score but not make a big deal of it. eg. playing poker with chocolate buttons instead of cash.

Any time you deliberately ignore some of the rules of a game, it means you are looking for a different experience than the one the game is designed to give you. This is just as true, if not more, for board games or sports which have large books of rules attached to them. I think of this as an anarchic approach to gameplaying. Crypto-Fascist designers (and their playtesting stooges) dictate the way games should be played. Human beings, with our endless ability to be bullish where it comes to rules, can take very different approaches.

So why do people play for fun?

There are lots of reasons to want to avoid competitive situations. Some are situational, some personal, and some to do with society in general and our approach to competition.

1/ You had a rough day in  RL and just want to chill out and relax. For some people, chilling out does mean playing competitive games with their friends, but there are times when you just want to drift  in a friendly environment. Some people have intensely stressful jobs the likes of which most of us will never understand. They don’t want to experience that in game also, even mildly. Or maybe just not in the mood for it tonight.

2/ You’re really just there for the social scene. Your goal is not to play the game, you may not even like it much. But you do want to hang out with the guys, tell silly jokes, and so on. Maybe you wanted to play a beer and pretzels game but got talked into something more hardcore.

You find this with a lot of people who really aren’t interested in the minutae of game rules. It’s simply not why they are there.

3/ You’re playing with people who have a very wide range of skill levels. Saying that  you’ll play for fun is a way to indicate to the pros that you don’t really feel like being massacred in game, so maybe they could take it easy and give you a chance to play too.

4/ You just don’t enjoy competitive games. Society conditions a lot of people (a lot of women, definitely) to have very little exposure to competitive environments. You never got used to the whole win/lose idea and you certainly don’t enjoy it as something to do in your free time. Or maybe you prefer to play cooperative games where everyone is motivated to help each other. So you’ll try to make a cooperative game out of a ruleset that isn’t really set up that way. “Let’s play for fun,” could mean, “Let’s keep things friendly.”

Also some people really don’t enjoy being exposed to aggressive/ competitive players and playstyles. While it may be inevitable as part of life, it’s not inevitable as a way to spend your leisure time.

5/ You’re scared of losing or being mocked for being bad. Socialising can be  hard enough for some people without being hassled for not being as good as they are at some daft game they like. In MMOs this is more complex. You could be a friendly player who loves to socialise and wants to hang out with friends, but your skill at the game gets in the way (or maybe theirs does :) ). And not only can you not easily hang out with them, your place in the social circle is at risk.

One answer could be ‘learn to play,’ but the real problem is that you’re stuck in the wrong kind of game for what you want to do.

/6 You like playing in your own way. This may not be the way a lot of other people play but you’re having fun and that’s the main thing. But when you do play with others, you need to let them know that you don’t really want their advice on how to play their way. Even if it is objectively correct.

Note: One thing that is clear about the non-competitive gamer is that everyone will be happier if they can be chilled about not always playing with their more competitive friends. Sometimes the price of going your own way is that it doesn’t run parallel to your friends.

MMOs as Social Games

It’s largely an accident that MMOs work as social games at all. Certainly they are designed to encourage players to work together, but the idea of players logging on to relax, hang out, and chat was never part of the original MUD setup.

People did, of course. As soon as they could talk to each other they developed social hotspots where people would log in, relax, hang out, and chat. And then the beauty of chat channels and bboards emerged, where people could chat even if they weren’t in the same ‘room’.

But there are a lot of obstacles to people just hanging out with friends if they want to play the game together. Levels get in the way, gear and skill requirements get in the way, wanting to do different things or progress in different ways gets in the way.

It’s actually much easier to make friends in game based on them wanting to do the same things in game as you, than to bring existing friends in and game together.

Social type MMOs have emerged and are emerging to fill this gap. I can’t write about them with much authority because I never took much interest. I’m just too much of a gamer to have bothered with Habbo Hotel and its ilk. One thing is clear though, they are huge and are only going to get bigger. I think this is by far the biggest market in MMOs, or will be very soon.

If I was in the development game, this is the space I’d be aiming it.

Can Social and Competitive Players hang out together?

It’s not necessarily the game I’d want to play but I bet I could design something that would be fun for gamers and socialisers alike.

It would have spectator modes so that non-gamers can watch and interact with their more hardcore friends. It would have a creative crafting style so that people who wanted to chill out by showing off their latest designs could do that.

There are a lot of players, who may not see themselves as gamers at all, who would love a fun virtual environment to hang out in.

How long before we see Guitar Hero World, where you can choose to either be in an up and coming band, own a small venue and try to attract bands to it and run social nights, get into the management/ PR game or just be a fan and buy (virtual) T-Shirts and go cheer on your favourites?

How long before TV creators come up with TV World where you can go watch your favourite shows as they air in virtual lounges with virtual friends, and chat as if you were all in the same living room?

The social side is still important to MMOs, who live or die on the strength of their community. And that means it’s important that people feel they can log on and chill out if they’re just not in the mood to really play anything stressful. It doesn’t mean that every MMO is a good environment for people who never want a competitive side to their gaming, but everyone sometimes wants a change of pace.