Mysterious Motivations of Players

Are players that hard to understand?  Two talks at this year's Game Developer's Conference, given by directors of high profile online games, suggest that we are still a mystery to people who spend tens (hundreds?) of millions of dollars making products to sell to us. 
  • Former Diablo III director Jay Wilson stated that Blizzard dramatically underestimated how many players would use the game's auction house feature, how frequently they would use that feature, and what impact this would have on the game's gear incentive curve.  As Wilhelm notes, the game's loot table generally drops random junk under your level, while the auction houses allow players to get optimized loot for their level (the junk gets vendored) for affordable quantities of in-game gold (or cash if you're really so inclined). 
  • Bioware's Creative Director on SWTOR James Ohlen indicated that they dramatically underestimated the speed with which players would consume content multiple times over.  He claims this crucial misjudgement led them to feel that they had more time work on endgame content than they had in reality.  The team was not prepared for the possibility of half a million players at endgame within the first month.  
I can understand when bugs/exploits or poorly thought design choices creep through the testing process.  The crowdsourced efforts of hundreds of thousands of players will inevitably find something that internal quality assurance could not, no matter how much time you have.  It's a bit harder to understand why, eight and a half years into the World of Warcraft era, developers are still underestimating player dedication in this way. 

The reality is we do exactly what the incentives tell us to do.  If grinding out gear is long and tedious and there is a way to skip to the end - Blizzard's motivation for the real money auction house in the first place was recognizing that this would occur and thinking it would be better to cut out the illicit middleman - players will go that route.  If the single biggest selling point of your product is the story, and the only way to get the next chapter of the story is to continue playing, players will continue to play (in the same way you might stay up all night watching a full season of a TV show or reading a good book). 

Perhaps the real failing in both designs is that the primary incentive - chasing gear or story - is so inherently limited in terms of time.  Once that time has run out, players apparently did not feel that the underlying game was worth continuing.  As we've learned time and time again, incentives are very effective at changing player behavior, especially in the short term, but they are very ineffective in changing player preferences in the long term. 

Dueling Dungeons And Dragons MMO's

I spent a brief chunk of time this weekend - probably around an hour or so - in the Neverwinter beta courtesy of a key contest over at Epic Slant Press.  I have mixed feelings about the increasingly common weekend-only paid open beta for new MMO's - they feel contrived to concentrate word of mouth (i.e. collect lots of social media posts - I suppose including this one - during/after the weekend, rather than scattered as players trickle in and out) while the short duration limits player access to the higher level game.  Never the less, there was a post I was meaning to write about the competing Dungeons and Dragons Online expansion plans at Turbine, so I decided it was worth at least a brief look. 

In general, I was pleasantly surprised.  Some people do not like the graphic and/or animation style, and perhaps I'm just not that picky, but I was fine with the visuals.  Like Bhagpuss, I am not especially fond of being forced into mouse-look mode with the requirement that I push the alt key to toggle the mode in which I can actually use the mouse to click on all of the UI elements that are visually placed on the screen.  Combat was action clicky with visual cues to dodge - increasingly common in newer MMO's these days - but seemed smooth enough.  I was underwhelmed with the RPG trope of the player character washing up from a shipwreck - incidentally, also the current tutorial sequence in DDO - but I suppose we all start somewhere? 

Contrasting Neverwinter and DDO
Cryptic's Neverwinter will in fact be the second action-based non-subscription MMO set in the Forgotten Realms, thanks in large part to changes that Turbine has been making to their older Dungeons and Dragons Online game.  Last year's DDO expansion created a lore excuse to move the game from the more obscure Eberron setting to the more popular Forgotten Realms - Turbine confirms that the original setting will not get new content, save for revamping/updating old content periodically in between patches where new stuff is available.  This year's expansion will offer the option to start a pre-made character at a high enough level to skip all the old stuff. 

Personally, I've spent way more time reading pen and paper Dungeons and Dragons rulebooks than actually playing Dungeons and Dragons, and I've probably spent more time with forums, character planners, wiki's and podcasts than actually playing DDO.  From my perspective, DDO's wide-open character class system - which allows an unusual degree of flexibility to make permanent choices that are either really good or really bad for your character - is a key selling point.  Even I had a lot of trouble getting started in DDO due to the magnitude of the choices you face in character generation, but I'm not sure the solution is to go running to cram in pre-made classes with talent trees just because the new competition is doing so. 

Speaking of which, Neverwinter offers one of five "classes" with skill progression that feels very much like Diablo III's, with several pools of skills, from which you get to equip and use a small subset.   It's probably the right call for a game that seems more focused on action and short sessions, but there definitely appears to be less meat to chew on in the character department. 

(On the other side of the coin, Neverwinter also presented me with many poorly documented choices during character creation.  It was unclear to what extent my choice of deity, home city, background, etc were cosmetic versus impactful.  Meanwhile, the limited information that is presented in game - e.g. the game's statement that my Cleric should focus on the Wisdom stat per DND rules - may be inaccurate in practice if some forum-goers are to be believed.  Perhaps this issue is inevitable if you're trying to include familiar stuff for the pen and paper crowd?  Also - with only two character slots and five classes - more possibly on the way - you can expect to delete and repeat if you want to try them all before settling on a main.) 

Buy to Play versus Free to Play
One final area that I will be watching closely post launch is the business models.  Turbine chose to call DDO's relaunch "free to play" in an era where such a re-launch was a pretty new thing.  In today's parlance, though, DDO would more accurately be called a "buy to play" game in which - for the most part - players will need to pay for access to small DLC-like adventure packs and individual character options, but will face no recurring fees for their use.  (An optional legacy subscription model also allows rental access to much of this stuff.)  Under this model, I've spent a comparatively large amount per hour of time played, but there's no beating the flexibility this offers the player in how to consume the content that you've paid for. 

By contrast, Neverwinter appears to be designed from the ground up without a subscription (unless there are plans for one that I'm unaware of?).  The prices in the beta store looked rather high, but it's hard to have much context when the numbers stand to change in testing, and without understanding which of the purchases are necessary (or available in-game).  One could imagine a model where this ends up costing longtime players more than they would have paid under a subscription system, while those who dabble could potentially pay little - or a lot if there are a certain number of things you need to unlock before getting underway in the game.  

I deliberately did not invest much time in my temporary beta character.  As a game that does not carry a box purchase price, there is no need for me to make a decision now on whether I will spend money.  If nothing else, Neverwinter has that going for it - a low barrier to entry on a game that seems reasonably focused on getting players into the action quickly (other than all of those choices during character generation).  Time will tell which way this DND duel plays out. 

Rise of Massively Multiplayer Online Gameplay Anthologies (MMOGA's)?

Blizzard's newly announced Hearthstone online card game is neither new to Blizzard (which has had a paper card game for years) nor online games (SOE has had online card games playable in several of its MMO's for years).  It is a natural fit for a company whose flagship MMO is increasingly a platform which hosts a range of distinct types of gameplay, as much as a single gaming product. 

Last week, my World of Warcraft mage hit level 88 doing a random Pandaria dungeon.  I'm generally reluctant to spend time running non-heroic versions of current expansion dungeons that I can expect to run repeatedly once I get to max level.  The thing that changed my mind was the realization that this expansion's solo content just isn't clicking for me, but that I'd rather be playing the five-man dungeon game.  (In fact, I'm currently running max level Hard Mode 4-man Flashpoints in SWTOR instead even though that expansion - and accompanying gear reset - is just over two weeks away.)

So I'm in when it comes to WoW's Pet Battles and 5-man content (and possibly its pick-up looking for raid, if/when I get that far).  I'm lukewarm on its solo game and indifferent to its crafting/cosmetics.  I've been out of its PVP (which itself comes in multiple different flavors) and structured raid games for years.  I may or may not be in when Hearthstone arrives (though this, unlike pet battles, is playable a standalone product without a WoW subscription - I'd be very surprised if the two products don't have tight cross-promotion).

If you look back at the old school PVE MMO's, I'd suggest that there was effectively one type of gameplay - killing mobs in groups - with some variation to be had in terms of how big the group and what you might do (e.g. crafting) to gear up for said.  With WoW - and other games that have tried to mirror the something-for-everyone approach with varying degrees of success - we increasingly have very different types of gameplay under one virtual roof, to the point where we're no longer playing the same game.  Rather, Azeroth is a platform that you go to in order to launch off onto one of the various gameplay options - some of which coexist in the open world, others of which build on its lore, and some of which are just about some good competitive fun.

Are we increasingly playing in a world of Massively Multiplayer Online Gameplay Anthoglogies (MMOGA's to pick an acronym that's vaguely pronounceable) rather than virtual worlds or traditional MMORPG's? 

P.S. Hat tip to Josh of the Game Diplomat blog and various podcasts for producing what is almost certainly the Internet's first Hearthstone podcast within days of its announcement.  :)

The Myth of Voting With Your Wallet

I find the controversy surrounding the recent, rocky launch of the latest Sim City interesting due to parallels we've seen in online gaming over the past few years.  Much of the anger we have seen against DRM, DLC, cash shops, and item gambling boxes goes beyond the specifics of each individual episode.  Rather, these changing business practices - driven in part by increasingly visible online capabilities - are driving home to customers who purchase video game products that they have no effective way of directing the development of these products. 

One of the more interesting arguments raised during this controversy is the idea that customers' anger is misplaced.  On a recent episode of MMO-Radio discussing the launch, Chris (of Game by Night) lamented that EA had already gotten their money from sales of the title, and that the backlash is only punishing developers at Maxis who had nothing to do with the more controversial business decisions.    Pete at Dragonchasers also feels that the game is not getting a hearing from gaming journalists and fans, and suggests that people who do not like EA's decisions should vote with their wallets. 

The "vote with your wallet" argument is not new - Chris (a different one!) of MMO Reporter fame often cites it in discussions of the latest addition to LOTRO's cash shop.  The problem with this "vote" is that the ballot has only a single check box next to the word "yes".  When you are only interested in "yes" votes, you don't find out WHY people have voted no. 
  • In Sim City's case, this makes the longtime simulation fan who chose to avoid the game due to DRM and server issues indistinguishable from the non-customer (like myself) who never would have purchased the game for any reason.  
  • In the days of subscription MMO's a significant number of canceled subscriptions would be noticed, but this was at best a paradoxical way of conveying feedback - the only way for your vote on improving the game to be heard was for you to quit the game, and for the developers to believe they could get your business back.
  • In today's era of cash stores, DLC, etc, the issue is no longer voting with YOUR wallet but rather voting against OTHER people's wallets.  To actually register a "no" vote you have to withhold money that you would otherwise have spent on the game, the developer needs to be aware that this is why you are withholding the money, and the amount that you and your like-minded colleagues are withholding has to be greater than the amount that people are spending on gambling boxes or whatever it is you are protesting.  Simply refusing to purchase the stuff yourself if you aren't also willing to cancel your subscription or not purchase the next expansion is NOT a "no" vote because only the "yes" votes are counted.  
Perhaps the increased prominence of "indie" games in general and video game Kickstarter campaigns - with their underwhelming track record - in particular is not just a question of rooting for the creative little guy.  Perhaps these are viewed as one of the few venues where producers of video games are more directly responsive to what their customers want.  And, on the other side of the coin, perhaps the anger over Sim City's servers provided the rare situation in which there are enough "no" votes to be noticed. 

The protests may be unfair to the developers and they may be unlikely to achieve a result that satisfies the customer complaints.  Even so, I can't agree that the wrath is mis-directed.  When you deny people a say in something they are invested in, and leave things such that the only way for players to disagree is to burn down the review scores and tell everyone who will listen not to buy the product, you can't be surprised if once in a while the customers turn around and do just that.