Gaming News: Free Steam Game, Comic Con MMO News, GTA Rothbury, Women spend more on virtual goods, 38 Studios big reveal, Starcraft did not cost $100m

Happy Sunday!

This week brings lots of announcements from Comic Con, including new trailers.

EA/ Maxis also announced that they are producing a game called Darkspore which seems to have nothing at all to do with Spore, except that they claim that they were inspired by the Spore character creator. Perhaps they realised that people enjoyed playing with the character creator more than they did with the game.

Having said that, “players battle across alien worlds to save the galaxy from the mutated forces of Darkspore in a four-player co-operative and full single-player campaign” sounds just a little bit like Alien Swarm, the free 4 player co-op top down shooter which was released for free (free as in beer) along with its base code on Steam this week. (It had good reviews too, go grab a copy if that sounds like your type of game.)

But riddle me this: Does the  “build your own pet dickmonster and watch it dance” play of Spore character creator really translate into a successful “build your own weapon out of monster body parts” type of shooter? Surely a Pokemon type of “Build your cute monster and then make it fight other monsters!” game would have been more logical.

DC Universe Online launch trailer

Fans of lycra-clad men, woman and aliens with improbable body shapes look no further, the Who do you trust? DCUO trailer is here.

Is it bad if every time I saw Wonder Woman, I wished they’d put her in the new costume? Also Batman looks terrifically butch in this trailer, I prefer him with the voluminous cloak.

DCUO is due to launch in November. Hopefully we’ll soon hear much more about the game itself and how it plays.

Space Battles to feature in SWTOR

Another announcement made at Comic Con confirms that the SWTOR team plan to include space battles in their upcoming MMO. It sounds as though it will involve some kind of self contained gameplay – and there’s more information to come in next month’s PC Gamer (a magazine which has been working hard to earn MMO fans’ money recently).

Dragon Age 2 at Comic Con

Lots more news this week about Dragon Age 2, also. I can’t sum it up any better than Arbitrary, who was there at the DA2 panel:

There’s a couple of big differences which I think will prove quite interesting, but obviously which we can’t really see in a short playtest. First of all, the hero is voiced! No more silence.

Secondly, the narrative structure of the game has changed. The game covers a much longer period than Dragon Age, and is told by a couple of (not necessarily reliable) narrators – the tale of The Champion (that’s you, that is!) and who s/he was. This allows Bioware, and the player to play key points in the life of the character, with each being able to have a massive influence on the rest of the story.

The section of playable game was chosen to show off some of the fighting and a little of the dialogue, but it was pretty short. I thought it definitely looked like the combat flowed more and I liked what I heard of the voices and what I saw of the new art style. In fact, there really wasn’t much I didn’t like about the changes and I’m now really looking forward to playing the game, due out in Spring next year – in perfect time for my birthday!

More from Comic Con

Arbitrary has been filing more reports from Comic Con here and there are a few more to come, also. Lots of news there.

And a link to Super Hero Squad Online (I couldn’t get this to work in Firefox but it’s fine in IE) which sounds like a terrifically fun little kid-friendly MMO where you collect Marvel Superheroes into a team and get them to go fight for you.

GTA Rothbury

Recently in the UK we had a manhunt for an ex-prisoner who went on a shooting rampage. There was a lot of criticism about media coverage, claiming (with good justification) that they turned it into a media circus with journalists reporting next to armed police squads whilst negotiating was going on and in earshot of the subject of the manhunt, and so on.

The final stand took place in a small village called Rothbury. This is only relevant because one of the crappier UK newspapers was taken in this week by a faked screenshot showing the cover of what purported to be Rockstar’s next game – Grand Theft Auto Rothbury.

Whilst any actual gamer would not have given that even a second of thought, clearly the Daily Star has none on staff because they ran with it. They got mocked widely in the gaming press, and then Rockstar got some lawyers involved. The Star had to apologise.

Women spend more than men on virtual goods

A survey published this week shows that women spend more than men on virtual goods. As you’ll see in the link, there’s room for some queries on the survey methodology, in particular running a survey on a micro-transaction site is likely to show that users spend more on casual games than ‘traditional’ ones,  but it wouldn’t surprise me if the general trend turned out to be correct. Hopefully there will be more surveys to follow.

But this does raise the question: in an era where online games are leaning more and more heavily on ‘micro’-transactions, how will they change to lure in more women if women are actually their best customers? Or is there a way for them to get men to spend more? Will it involve guns and/or porn?

Lots of questions. You can bet that many business heads in the industry are thinking about this right now.

38 Studios reveal Kingdom of Amalur: Reckoning

Curt Schilling’s 38 Studios have been teasing a reveal of their first game for many moons now, and this week they brought out a trailer and some information.

Previously known only as Project Mercury, their single player RPG has been announced as Kingdom of Amalur: Reckoning (or KOAR for short.) There’s a trailer to go with the announcement, and it looks pretty sleek.

38 Studios always claimed to be about MMOs, and this single player RPG is to be a testbed for their rich game universe and background, as well as a good game in its own right. While the long long trail of hype without any supporting substance has put a lot of bloggers off, it’s hard to argue with talent like:

People working on the game
– Lead Designers: Ken Rolston (Redguard, Morrowind, Oblivion), Mark Nelson (Morrowind, Oblivion, Fallout 3)
– Lead Narrative Designer: Erik J. Caponi (Oblivion, Fallout 3)
– Lead Systems Designer: Ian Frazier (Ultima 5: Lazarus, Titan Quest, Dawn of War: Soulstorm)

And that’s even before you include Bob Salvatore and Todd McFarlane. So either way, this has to be great news for fans of single player open world RPGs. It isn’t due to be released until Autumn 2011 though.

No, Starcraft did not cost $100m

Last week, I noted rumours that SC2 had cost $100m to make. It turns out that the commenter who said “no way” was absolutely right. Starcraft 2 did not cost $100m, the Wall Street Journal got its figures mixed up and had to print a retraction.

Virtual goods vs virtual services (how to get RMT right)

RMT (real money transactions) is currently the hot new charging strategy for MMOs which are not WoW but want to take players to the cleaners anyway. By new, what I really mean is not very new, I think EQ2 has had servers where you could buy items for cash for awhile.

So, the idea is that instead of (or as well as) paying for a subscription, you can also buy various items and/or consumables for your characters by paying extra. So you have more choice over how you spend your cash to tailor your in game experience. And you might be able to pay for your game time in more easily manageable lumps also.

Ixobelle sums up neatly some main objections to the scheme. Do players really want to be nickled and dimed all the time, or would they be happier with a flat rate, even if it means paying the same as people who play many more hours?

The upside is that theoretically you only pay for what you use. If you feel that the flat rate is just a way for casuals to subsidise the hardcore, you don’t have to buy in to it. Also, the appeal to companies is that it’s much easier to get people to sign up to a free game, and theory is that 5% who get hardcore and spend through the roof will subsidise those who don’t. So someone still subsidises someone else, just in RMT you actually can be a freeloader. For example, in this interview with the CEO of the company that runs Puzzle Pirates, he notes that only 10% of customers actually pay anything.

Maybe the idea is sound, but they’re using the wrong model

My main problem with the idea is that as a user is that I don’t want to buy bits and pieces for my online gaming as if I was in a supermarket. A virtual shopping basket full of bits of gear, access to extra careers, experience potions, and anything else the company cares to price up is just that bit too much hassle. And I have years of experience of supermarket shopping – years of experience in writing shopping lists in advance and then ignoring them in favour of some really good offer, years of experience in guesstimating how much I need to spend for a week’s shop and weighing up possible items to see if they fit. It’s not an exciting or engaging experience that I’m keen to keep repeating if I don’t have to.

I don’t want to log into the game and feel that I have to check what the hot deals are for RMT every day/ month so that I don’t miss any good bargains, I just don’t think it would add anything to the gameplay. If I want to do that, I can play on the AH.

An online game is simply not a bag of items. However much companies like to pretend that they are selling me virtual goods, I don’t think that’s the case. They’re selling me a virtual good which is tied to a service.

And in my books that means that they are selling an extra frill to an existing service.

So what if we abandon the supermarket model and look instead at … telephones? Mobile phones offer a network based service and there are tons and tons of options as to how you pick and choose which bits you want. Wouldn’t it be better if RMT games used that kind of pricing model? It can be complex, but I think it’s more intuitive for a service based offering.

If you want a high bandwidth monthly subscription with loads of internet usage and instant messages thrown in, you can sign up for that. If you are a very low volume user and prefer to pay as you go, you can buy a PAYG phone instead and pay by the minute. If you want an extra network service, you can add it to your monthly bill. You can even use your phonebill to pay for virtual goods online in some models (ie. buy them, and have it added to the bill).

But what you don’t have to do is keep paying a bit here and a bit there. Because telcos (telephone companies) know that customers find that a hassle. Also, they want you tied into their network. And gaming companies should want players to feel tied into their games – by choice I should add. They should not want you to be deciding at the end of every month whether you want to switch or not.

There are other advantages too which telcos have been quick to offer. Subscriptions where your calls are cheaper if you phone someone else on the same network. Subs where you can name five people and get cheaper calls to them. (ie. encouraging players to refer-a-friend*5 and then play with them, in gaming terms.) There have been deals where you could buy a second phone more cheaply, for a child, or to use as a spare.

The MMO industry could easily adapt those offers to gamers. We’re users on a network which happens to be a game.

And there’s more: what about players who are looking for a new game? Telcos offer bonuses to new subscribers, they’ll help you transfer your address books over, they may even let you transfer your number. And that’s only the start.

The downside is that mobile phone billing can get very complex – BUT once you have picked a deal, it’s easy to understand what you have paid for and what you are committed to if you go for a monthly subscription. I don’t know about you, but I wish devs would stop treating games as if they were supermarkets. They’re not. I don’t want virtual goods, what I want are virtual services.