In which we give marketing advice to MMO publishers

Gravity noted via twitter that he’d offered some suggestions to Flying Labs (creators of Pirates of the Burning Sea) on how to improve their website to better attract new players – it’s a post on their suggestions forum.

<…> new users will make a fairly quick prejudicial judgement on whether to download the game. They’ll be asking questions like, will I get ganked, how much does it really cost to play and enjoy it, and what are the features.

Answers to these questions should be easy to find.

Sounds sensible, right?

So what advice would you give to your favourite game as to how better to attract new players or draw back returning ones? (Advice like ‘completely redesign your game’ probably isn’t useful.)

Here’s a couple of thoughts:

LOTRO: It’s difficult to draw players into an older game because they’ll tend to assume it’s less good than whatever they are currently playing. But LOTRO has a lot of unique selling points – the lore, the skirmishes, the great epic storylines, and the friendliness of the player base. They really should be pushing the friendliness more because it would draw in exactly the sorts of players they want. So I’d suggest for them a social push with lots of inducements to share information on social networking sites.

WoW: The price of entry is way high, especially since if you really did want to buy all the expansions it’s about twice as expensive if you do so online via Blizzard as if you just buy them from Amazon. (I know this because I checked earlier.) Just bundle the dratted things together and halve the price and loads more people would buy it if they liked the trial.

Sony: Oh. Haha. This online thing just isn’t working out for you is it? Sorry, I got nothing.

Gaming News: What’s hot at E3, APB and the embargo of doom, WAR drops producer, Microsoft still has no sense of humour shock

Mourn with me now for the ongoing death-by-boredom of English football, coming to a TV near you on Wednesday night.

And in other news, another E3 industry convention has come and gone. So what did 2010 have to show? I’ve covered much of the MMO news here with a special SWTOR post here.

The two biggest stories of the convention, to my mind, are hardware related.

  • Sony and Nintendo are betting that we’d all like to see our gaming in 3D – the PS3 will get a compatibility patch for 3DTVs and Nintendo’s new 3DS handheld (no glasses required) will offer a 3D experience. In fact, if I had to pick one single news story from E3, it would be that everyone who tried the new 3DS said – in shock – it just works. And it will also apparently be able to show films in 3D.
  • Sony and Microsoft also showed off their respective motion controller technology. The Sony Move looks like a stick with a ball on the end, and Microsoft’s Kinect (the renamed Natal technology) doesn’t require the player to hold a physical controller at all, it picks up your actions as you move around. But somehow, despite giving a new XBOX to everyone at their presentation, Microsoft doesn’t seem to have captured the journalists’ attention.

Jon Shute blogs at VanHemlock about the various new hardware on offer, and concludes that neither of the two motion controllers seem to be aimed at the hardcore gamer.

The big three E3 presentations

Each of the big console manufacturers traditionally gives a big presentation at E3. The aim is to build up some excitement about their hardware, future plans, and what’s in store for their customers over the next year.

This year, I think Nintendo did the best job of capturing people’s imaginations. The 3DS wowed everyone who tried it. Their software lineup includes new outings for a lot of old favourite franchises (well, if you are a nintendo head anyway) including Zelda, Goldeneye, Kirby, Metroid, and Donkey Kong (yes really). There’s a strong lineup of software on offer for both of their consoles and as an avowed DS fan, I can’t wait to get my hand on a 3DS. I also look forwards to more DS RPGs and puzzlers. All very crowd pleasing stuff.

What Nintendo do extremely well is put the message across that their portfolio offers something for everyone. I’d be surprised if anyone saw that presentation and didn’t find at least one game or genre that caught their interest.

By comparison, Microsoft just can’t seem to get it right. Even when they have technology as potentially exciting as the Kinect, they somehow … miss the mark. Instead of a coherent ‘we offer something for everyone’ message, they just give the impression that they’re incoherent and confused. On the one hand, they’re chasing the 18-30 male gamer with a slew of shooters and a deal with ESPN to show premium sports on Xbox live. To hammer the point home, EA introduced a new Xbox loyalty program called ‘the Gun Club’ – I guess they won’t be including any family type games with that then.  … And then there’s Kinect with some dancing games which M/soft is trying to portray as the Xbox’s great white hope. It does not compute.

Then there’s Sony who are trying to sell people on the future of 3DTV – a rather expensive future given the current recession for sure. Their presentation leaned heavily on third party games, but what a great lineup. Sorcery – a magical combat game based on using the Move controller – sounds amazing, exactly what you’d want of a Harry Potter knockoff.

They also put one over on Microsoft by actually announcing prices for the Move. And also, whilst confirming that the PSN (online aspect of the PS3) will remain free, they plan to offer a premium service which will include extra downloadable content. I think we’ll need to see what’s on offer before people decide whether to go for this or not. The other big news from the Sony presentation is that Portal 2 will be available for the PS3, along with steamworks.

Some of the other games that caught my attention at E3 were Tron, Bulletstorm, Portal 2, the obligatory SWTOR and a whole slew of games for the DS.

No reviews for APB until a week after release?

All Points Bulletin, the GTA-alike PvP based MMO is rumbling towards release at the moment. And the developers decided that now would be a good time to demand that reviewers not release any reviews until a week after the release date. RPS state in this link that response to the beta has not been positive – I’m not so sure. Plenty of rpg.net players seemed to like it well enough.

In reponse to press complaints, Realtime Worlds produced another press release and moved the embargo forwards.

Whilst I understand that MMOs take time to review, the answer is glaringly obvious and is just to read impressions from several different sources – blogs, bboards, professional sites. A MASSIVE multiplayer game needs to be seen from a massive number of views, and most casual blogs also treat foolish press embargoes with the disdain that they deserve. Trying to get a blogger to not tell their mates what they think of their latest purchase is a fool’s game.

Drescher leaves WAR

I had hoped that WAR might be settling on an even keel but in news this week, Josh Drescher (the producer) got the boot. I wish him luck in future – I still do have a soft spot for that game, but it cannot be a good sign.

No more red ring of death

I cringe for Microsoft, I really do. There will not be a red ring of death (the nickname for the indication that hardware has failed) on future XBOXs because …. they’ve removed the red LED.

That’s a classic marketing solution to an engineering problem, by the way.

Gaming News: E3 Hype, Blizzard ditches Cataclysm features, Fallen Earth joins the cash shop crowd, Sony pimps 3D

I love the World Cup in the same way that I love Christmas. Neither of them is my religion, but I enjoy the general festivities. Given that the World Cup is the biggest sporting event in the world, I’m mildly surprised that so few MMOs have come up with any football related features or trophies to celebrate. WoW had a special PvP pet for the Chinese Olympics, after all.

Only Free Realms chose to celebrate, with special team jerseys and banners. So well done them.

Lots of Gaming Companies announce what they plan to show at E3

E3 is next week. I’m trying to avoid the sort of news cycle where people announce what they’re going to say, then they say it, and then they announce what they just said. So there will be lots of entries in next week’s news about what actually did catch my eye at E3.

Kotaku lists out their picks for big RPGs of the show. It’s hard to really get worked up about a bunch of sequels, but MMOs also promise a strong showing with the likes of APB, Final Fantasy 14, and the ubiquitous SWTOR all exhibiting. Fable III promises to be Natal infused – people without a huge living room may see this as a disadvantage. Intriguingly, The Escapist had a line on some information that Pokemon Black/White may also feature some kind of massive multiplayer worldwide online play mode.

It is likely that the Playstation Move and XBOX Natal controllers will feature strongly in demos. Analyst Michael Pachter wrote a widely linked piece for Edge Online in which he compares the two technologies, and explains why neither will beat the Wii. In an interview with PS3center, he also explains why he thinks Natal will sell more than the Move. Soon, we’ll all be able to make up our own minds.

Valve admitted that Portal 2 will not in fact be out until 2011, and added (probably with a sigh) that next week’s surprise is actually Portal 2 related. Which I think I guessed last week because it was obvious! This did not stop loads of gaming blogs from wasting column inches on guesses about Halflife 3.

Cataclysm News

Blizzard will of course not be at E3 because they have Blizzcon instead later this year. But still, lots more news this week about Cataclysm. Blizzard revealed that the new expansion will bring region-wide battlegrounds. So instead of only ever matching up with servers in your battlegroup, you could end up in a match with anyone in your region. We don’t yet know whether Blizzard also plan to extend this to PvE/ LFD.

And they also held a press event, releasing the news that some of the previously discussed Cataclysm features will not make it into the live expansion. In particular, guild talents have hit the chopping block (and good riddance, that system would never have worked. No one wants to be arguing with the rest of their guild about which talents to take) and so has the path of the titans alternate advancement scheme (which is more of a shame because that sounded fun.)

Inscription also gets an overhaul so that players only need to buy glyphs once to learn them, after which they can switch glyphs without needing to buy more scrolls. Plus a new type of glyph for cosmetic changes.

I’ll discuss this more in a post next week but basically it’s all good news and means that the Blizzard behemoth is lumbering towards the release of the new WoW expansion at a decent pace. Apparently Cataclysm is also going to have three times as many new quests as Wrath – but this does also include the low level ones that will have been reworked.

Ghostcrawler also had an exclusive interview with wowhead this week and they talk about professions, balancing PvP with PvE, and so on. Definitely worth a read.

APB gets open beta, but not down under

All Points Bulletin, the action-y MMO is into open public beta (lots of keys being given away via RPS). But the game will not be released in Australia. Apparently this is because the developers has no plans to host any servers in Oz.

Fallen Earth sells pets for cash

This week yet another MMO which had been subscription only sells pets for cash. Dickie discusses the cash for pets dilemma – and again, as with EQ2, this pet does confer some game advantages for the buyer.

Given that Icarus Studios had to lay off staff earlier this year, Fallen Earth players may feel that this is a chance to actively support a studio with a product they like which has had a financial rough patch. I’m just not sure how I feel about cash shop purchases as charity.

Everything goes 3D

Sony held a big presentation this week to share their vision for 3D TV and gaming. As well as showing off some new 3D TVs, the PS3 is about to receive a firmware patch which will allow players to use them.

Anyone planning on shelling out for a 3D TV to try some of this out? If they can produce experiences that are as immersive as Avatar (for example) then maybe Sony are right about 3D being the future of gaming.

More MMO News

Also in the MMO news this week, Darren@Common  Sense Gamer finds out why the Jumpgate Evolution team have been so quiet lately. We should see more announcements and demos from them next week (this makes me happy.)

Mortal Online, a Darkfall type sandbox PvP game was released this week.

Final Fantasy 14 (now in alpha testing) shows off some character customisation, and we learn more about Guild Leves.

Guild Wars 2 releases information about the warrior class, with wallpapers, videos, and the works. And also about their trait system, which I totally fail to understand.

2 games that could be WoW-beaters

It’s  fashionable to say that Warcraft has grown so large now that there will never be any single WoW beater. It’s less of a game and more of a force of nature, a historical blip which will go down in records as a milestone in humanity’s takeup of the internet, social networking, and online virtual worlds.

If you play World of Warcraft, you are part of a historical phenomenon. You’ll be able to look back and tell your grandchildren (or you could just twitter them now if you have any), “Yes, I played that game. We all did.”

Anyone who thinks it’s just another game isn’t paying attention. As to why it got so large — a perfect storm of quality game, smart marketing, lack of competition (at the time it launched), opening the market to more casual players, and a crazy social networking effect. It’s anyone’s guess. Probably a lot of these factors.

Then again, a few years ago who would have guessed that Facebook would so totally overwhelm MySpace, or that twitter would become such a big thing? That’s a rhetorical question, and the answer is … anyone who tried the new formats would realise almost immediately. I don’t know about you but as soon as I saw Facebook I knew it was a better social platform than MySpace. Scrabble sealed the deal. (Admittedly I haven’t logged into Facebook for months, I got bored of being invited into stupid groups by people who weren’t my friends.)

Similarly, ten years ago it didn’t take very long to realise how quickly mobile phones would take off as soon as the prices came down — you only had to try one for a day to see the difference it made. Going further back, how quickly do you think Sony Walkman‘s took off? Very fast. You only had to use it for an hour or two to see how cool it was to be able to take your music around with you.

If a virtual world comes along that suits a lot of people better than WoW, they will switch. This will happen faster if the barrier to switching is low. It will happen faster if it targets a large section of the WoW audience that isn’t currently 100% happy with the game they have. In order for it to become a WoW-beater, it will need to not only steal Warcraft players but also open whole new markets. And one thing is for sure, it won’t be a game that is ‘mostly like Warcraft but with a few tweaks’ or ‘like WoW but with superheroes/ spaceships/ vampires instead of fantasy.’

It may not even be a game at all.

Free Realms

I’m not in the beta test of FR, although I’ve mentioned it previously. The reason I think Free Realms will challenge WoW is because a lot of WoW players aren’t that interested in the ‘gamier’ side of it as an MMO. They love the shiny production values and attractive stylised graphics, but the endgame world of people calling you a moron  if you don’t put out enough dps in some instance, or smack talk in battleground chat don’t appeal to them (tbh they don’t appeal to a lot of people).

Maybe what they really want is a friendly virtual world where they can dress up their characters, collect minipets, play minigames with their friends, and chat.  Where no one will whine at them about their specs, or expect them to dedicate 2+ nights per week to raiding if they’re ever going to see the cool storylines or get the best loot.

FR looks to have great production values, be very accessible, be focus grouped to death about what casual MMO players want, be a friendly environment where people can easily play with their families/ less hardcore players. And of course, it’s free — or at least you can do most of the stuff you’d want for free, with options to pay for extras.

You just have to look at the comments to this Massively post which asked what people were looking forwards to about Free Realms to see how many gamers would like a relaxing environment to play with less game-crazed family members.

There’s an opening there for a lot of players to move to a game they’d find suited their preferences more than WoW.  I might wish that more virtual worlds might be generated that were a bit less childish, because cartoon animals and generic cuteness don’t do much for me (and I’m really not that desperate to socialise with 12 year olds unless they are actually family), but to a lot of people and a lot of kids, that has a high appeal.  I’ll certainly be trying it out, if only to hang out with friends who aren’t hardcore MMO players but might be tempted into this one.

Sony’s main competition with FR is probably more the social worlds aimed at kids than it is WoW but that just means that there’s a huge market out there for them to tap into. Can they attract players from Habbo Hotel to their new offering?  They’ll certainly try.

I know I’m looking forwards to playing (and writing about) it when it does go live.

Diablo III

D3 could appeal to a different segment of current WoW players. It will almost certainly have a grimmer, gritter, more gothic atmosphere than Warcraft (admittedly not difficult). It has a vast built-in fanbase, based on players who loved the previous game. It’s made by Blizzard so will be prominently advertised all over the official sites.

And it will take the core group gameplay of WoW and distill it into its purest essence. A lot of WoW players aren’t really interested in socialising, or trying to earn gold, or immersing themselves into a virtual world.

All Blizzard have to do is let the online version of D3 have access to some kind of auction house, a way to mail gear to your alts, and more fully featured chat than Diablo II and that alone will fulful a lot of the player interaction options that many current WoW players want.

They want to group up easily and find some action when they feel like it. They want to be able to buy and sell on an auction house. And they may want some light chat inbetween. But a lot of people don’t care about exploring, don’t want the hassle of being tied to a guild, and don’t want deep interactions. It will be like all the fun casual gaming parts of WoW without any of the hassle. And if they are more in a mood to play solo, then it has a cracking solo mode too. Of course you can play the whole game solo, that’s what it is.

It may even be that the downloadable content model will let Blizzard offer the equivalent of raid content for Diablo III.

(Note: this assumes that it’s a good game, of course.)

Why D3 and not any of the other current games with online multiplayer options? Because it’s not a shooter. Because it has that massive built in fanbase. Because the concept of talent trees came from Diablo in the first place. Because of the loot. Because it’s dark fantasy.

And I would love to be a fly on the wall in Blizzard HQ as they try to figure out whether or not to give D3 the things it needs to succeed (ie. auction house, mail, etc) or whether doing so might threaten their cashcow.

Both Free Realms and Diablo III offer a (potentially) better version of some aspect of a virtual world or game where WoW falls down. That has to appeal to people. Heck, it appeals to me, and I love the whole idea of virtual worlds. I think they both stand to challenge WoW to decide exactly what it does have to offer to casual players.

I was thinking myself that it would be a bad thing if Ulduar turned out to be too hard. Because if you’re bored with Naxx and slamming your head against a wall in Ulduar, what else is there to do in endgame? It’s a consequence of pushing more of the population into raiding instead of providing more casual endgame activities that Blizzard itself is now in a Raid-or-Die loop with Warcraft. If players can’t raid, perhaps the game itself will die … slowly …

But there will never be a WoW-beater. And the reason is that many WoW players dont’ see themselves as gamers and certainly not MMO gamers. They are WoW players. It has become a hobby in itself. When they get bored, they won’t necessarily switch to another computer game at all.

What do you think? If you had the chance to switch to a game that just offered the core parts of WoW that you loved and none of the bits you dislike, would you go?