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. 

Mini-Guide: Pet Family Counters

I'm not generally in the guide-writing business, but the following is information I was collecting anyway, so I figured I might as well share.  If you want a more general guide to WoW Pet Battle families, you can read one at Warcraft Pets or listen to one at the WoW Pet Battle Crew Podcast. Also, I tip my hat to the counter finder at Warla's Pet search, which helped remind me of a few abilities I'd forgotten, and is a good place to go if a specific NPC with cross-family abilities is giving you a hard time. 

This list/commentary focuses specifically on pets that are especially suited to countering each family.  Each pet family suffers increased damage from one type of attack.  Each family's default attack type also deals reduced damage to one other family of pets - though this isn't a 100% guarantee of reduced damage since many pets will have some non-default abilities.  Still, if you can get both of these on the same pet, you have a worst nightmare for demolishing most hapless NPC's. 

Aquatic: Magic-family pets with Flying-type Attacks (clear winner)
Your winner here is the Jade Owl, crafted by jewelcrafters - which was the pet that started my work on this list.  It has all the attacks from a normal flying pet, but it has the magic family type and therefore takes reduced damage from aquatic attacks.  Note that this pet will be uncommon quality when learned, which means you will need to have a battle-stone if you want to upgrade its stats to rare quality. 

The Enchanted Broom - which also needs a battle-stone if you want to upgrade it - also has a flying Sandstorm attack, which creates a weather effect which effectively negates DOT's (which some aquatic creatures use).  I do like the Broom as a pet, but this attack is on a long enough cooldown that I don't recommend it specifically for use as a counter to aquatics.

Beast: Flying-family pets with Mechanical-type Attacks (no winner)
Sadly, there's no winner here.  Mechanical attacks are very rare outside of mechanical pets.  The only flying pet that has any mechanical damage is the Dragon Kite, which was from an old TCG set, but even then it's only the call lightning weather effect, which is no substitute for a real mechanical pet.  On the plus side, at least your flying pets get to have reduced damage against one of the most common attack types in the game.

Critter: Humanoid-family pets with Beast-type Attacks (clear winners)
Here you have several similar wild pet options, including at a minimum the Stunted Yeti, the Flayer Youngling, and the Kun-Lai Runt.  To be clear, you don't need a specialty pet to handle taming/killing of wild critters - if anything, their vulnerability to the near-ubiquitous beast damage is a huge downside to the family.  That said, some of these pets can hit repeatedly and hard, so it's nice to have the option for NPC tamer battles.

Dragonkin: Undead-family pets with Humanoid-type Attacks (no winner)
The bad news is that the Undead are the smallest pet family, and - while some of them were humans in life - (almost) none of them have humanoid attacks.  (The exception - the very hard to find rare Scourged Whelping has the Darkness weather effect - not a high damage item - and a very odd channeled attack that only does decent damage if paired with a different weather effect.)  The mostly bad news - with a touch of silver lining - is that Dragons have a bit of a habit of breathing various forms of magic or elemental attacks - a surprising number have little to no dragonkin-type damage. 

Magic is the more common variant due to the lore of Azeroth, and for magic-inclined dragons you do have the option of using a mechanical pet (strong defense against magic) with humanoid attacks - the Clockwork Gnome and the Darkmoon Tonk are two examples.  Just be warned that if you do get a dragon that breathes elemental fire (as opposed to dragonkin fire) your mechanical pet is going to take a ton of damage very quickly.  As long as you know precisely what you're up against - e.g. NPC pet tamers - this approach can pay off.

Elementals: Critter-family pets with Aquatic-type Attacks (arguable winner)
Technically speaking, there is a winner here - any of five snails which are critters and have a single aquatic attack.  However, I'm reluctant to endorse this solution. 

First off, the attack in question is a dive ability, which has a long cooldown because it's attached to a guaranteed dodge ability and may or may not have a diminished miss chance.  (Josh suggests that he saw this with a similar flying ability, and I'm inclined to agree - but I can't see why just the flying version would be covered.)  Second, and more to the point, critters are vulnerable to beast attacks which are both the most common pet family in the game and the most common type of cross-family attacks, because ANYTHING has some way of biting.  Throw in the fact that elemental pets very commonly have healing abilities to patch themselves up while your big hit is on cooldown, and I suggest you'd be much better off just trying to burst them down with an aquatic pet. 

Flying: Dragonkin-family pets with Magic-type Attacks (clear winners)
Remember how I mentioned above that dragons which do magic damage are very common for lore reasons?  This works out poorly for flying pets. 

A personal sentimental favorite is the Sprite Darter Hatchling, which was the very first and only minipet I owned for a number of years.  Back at launch, each individual pet you purchased was a slot in your bags you were never going to get back, but this little guy was a reward for an Alliance questline that I completed - several times in fact - back in 2005.  With no way to get the pet back if you deleted him, I was definitely holding on to this guy, and now that sentimental souvenir pays off in pet battles.  (This factor is also the true brilliance of adding pet battles to WoW's existing cosmetic pet system - I already had this type of emotional investment from day one.) 

Humanoid: Beast-family pets with Undead-type Attacks (arguable winner)
Humans are another mixed bag.  Spiders and maggots/grubs both have undead-type life-leech attacks that make them generally good pets in any case.  However, neither of these attacks are big damage burst that will demolish a human as quickly as the families where I've called a clear winner.  Meanwhile, humans very commonly have non-humanoid attacks, so the defensive advantage is limited.  That said, your spiders at least have the advantage of being good tough all-around pets. 

Magic: Mechanical-family pets with Dragonkin-type Attacks (clear winner)
As with the aquatics, there is a winner if you're willing to have a pet crafted and then find a battle-stone to upgrade it to rare quality.  The Mechanical Pandaren Dragonkin has a dragon-fire breath attack, and is also a generally good pet.

Mechanical: Elementals (clear winners)
Mechanical pets are the oddball in that they are the only family who take increased damage from the same family that they deal reduced damage to - the elementals.  Presumably, this is to balance out some of their other family bonuses - they are generally hard-hitting, have a great passive ability (when it works, though it sometimes won't go off for reasons that are not documented), and deal extra damage to beasts (again, the most common family in the game).  In return, your day can be totally ruined by any elementals.

As an aside, a pair of fellow mechanical pets - the Pandaren Dragonkin and the Darkmoon Zeppelin - were previously a surprisingly good workaround for mechanical pets until a change in today's patch 5.2.  These pets previously had a spammable single target elemental attack to go with their decoy ability, which is great for blocking the really large hits mechanical pets can deal out with their wind-up abilities.  Unfortunately, the ability in question - thunderbolt - was changed into an AOE with a cooldown, and Blizzard also greatly increased the cooldown on the decoy ability, so this is no longer recommended. 

Undead: Aquatic-family pets with Critter-type Attacks (clear winners)
And finally, the mortal enemy of the no-longer-mortal is apparently... frogs and toads, as their tongues count as critter attacks.  I guess a rain of toads is NOT a good day for the undead of Azeroth - adding insult to injury, these amphibians can even heal up while waiting out the one turn of invulnerability that undead get after being re-killed. 

Most turtles will also work with the "powerball" type attack, though really I'd like something that hits harder on my family counter pet.  Finally, though they don't have the advantage of being aquatic, I do have to put in a plug for my fellow Armadillo's

Spammers Win - Anonymous Commenting Disabled

Like Kleps, I'm seeing a substantial uptick in spam comments that are getting through Google's spam filter on the blog.  Historically, the filter has been very good at its job, but recently the upper hand seems to have gone to the spammers.  This is a problem because the one thing Google's spam filter has NOT been good at historically is wasting my time by sending me emails to notify me of comments that it subsequently put into the spam filter (meaning that when I spend my time to go check, the comment is already gone).  I get 20 emails per day containing spam comments and until recently none of then had been getting through, but now I'm coming back a few days later and finding that 10% are - which adds up to several spam comments on every post.

I'm disappointed by this outcome because I personally am not a fan of being forced to log in to share my thoughts, and I've gotten some very insightful comments from anonymous readers over the years.  Unfortunately, the signal to noise has just gotten prohibitive of late. 

Farewell To Pet Battle Forfeit?

Gaming has been derailed by various real life, and as a result I've been back at work on Pet Battles after a brief visit to actually playing World of Warcraft proper.  I've been focusing on an incentive which will be going away in patch 5.2, possibly next week - in this case, a seemingly technical change to forfeiting pet battles. 

Why Forfeit?
Pet Battle Auto Forfeit, my personal choice amongst add-ons for this purpose
There are three main reasons why you would forfeit a pet battle, in roughly increasing order of why they would not be considered desirable behavior:
  1. Your pets were obviously and catastrophically inappropriate for the battle.  This is moderately understandable, as it is an account-wide system, so you can enter a level 25 pet battle zone and forget that you had your level 6 pets on your active roster.
  2. To get an advantage over NPC tamers.  NPC's cannot alter their rosters - indeed, you are free and encouraged to catch and level pets to counter their teams - but they often have some  variability in which pet they start.  If they go out of the order you expected, you can either continue knowing your counters won't be ideal, sacrifice a turn and allow your foe a free hit on your incoming pet as you swap in the correct pet, or just forfeit.
  3. Because the wild pet/group you attacked does not contain anything you wish to tame.  You might still want to kill the pets to farm them for exp, but this will take time you could be spending looking for other pets to tame.  This being World of Warcraft, with its sometimes notoriously open scripting system, players have naturally coded UI add-ons to automate the process of determining whether the enemy team contains anything worth capturing.
Currently, there is no penalty for forfeiting, and therefore limited reason NOT to forfeit when these situations come up.  With the patch, all of the player's battle pets will take significant damage as a penalty to discourage the practice.

Better Design As Intended?
As with most places where players are acting in ways the developer did not intend, some responsibility for the situation can be blamed on the game design.  The NPC battle teams are tough - often higher quality than anything the player can obtain - and having to allow them a free hit on your group can be the cause of failure. 

As to grinding for wild pets, well, here's where there is good and bad.  Pets come in qualities - grey, white, green and blue - and, for those who really care about how those stats are distributed, in specific breeds as well.  Setting aside the question of breeds, personally I won't spend time leveling anything that isn't blue quality, and you're going to be battling many copies of each pet to meet this goal - some estimates run around a 1 in 12 chance of encountering a rare pet, and some of these pets are somewhat hard to find in the first place. 

If you know there is no way the pets you're fighting are the pets you want, and there's a good chance that someone else is going to come along and grab the other spawns while you spend the time on the fight, all of your incentives are in favor of throwing in the towel.  (Ironically, world pet spawns are about as heavily contested as non-instanced content gets in a game that doesn't come anywhere near this level of competition for anything else in the open world.) 

The changes may not solve the whole problem.  In an additional tweak, any pets that people do run away from will respawn in the world so that others can try their luck.  Thus, more considerate tamers can leave poor-quality pets in the world for those who just want to catch a copy of a pet they never intend to use, just to fill out their journals.  In principle, though, this could open the door to forfeiting, quickly healing your pets from all the forfeiting, and re-engaging the same pet at full health.

In any case, I can definitely see why the way the system was designed led to the epidemic of forfeiting.  Until the patch closes the door for good I'll be hard at work filling out as many slots in my journal as possible with the coveted rare pets (especially for any creatures I actually plan to use in combat).

Mixed Early Thoughts On Pandaria

When my initial impressions of WoW's Pandaria expansion were primarily negative, I made a conscious decision to hold judgement - and not post on the blog - while I tried to figure out why. 

I knew some portion of the issue was a disruption to my routine - after spending the overwhelming majority of my time in WoW during the last two years either running random dungeon groups or working on pet battles, suddenly the five new levels stood in between me and what I was used to doing for probably the first time in my MMO career.  Some portion was the learning curve associated with yet another major overhaul to the game's class system.  Some portion was that the story simply needed time to ramp up. 

I'm glad I took the time.  Having cleared the Jade Forest, and hit level 87 in the process, I have found truth in both the mitigating factors but also potentially some degree of disappointment with the expansion itself.

Changing the time-to-kill
Over the years, I've found that I'm notoriously bad at predicting what class I am going to like in a new MMO.  Many things that sound good on paper turn out to be not so fun in practice.  The one indicator that works most of the time is the time it takes to solo an individual mob - a seemingly highly technical thing to look at but a major impact on my personal playstyle. 

When individual mobs die very quickly, I would rather play a ranged character so that I'm not spending all of my time chasing after my next target.  (This was a particular problem for SWTOR melee because your NPC companion switches targets automatically, while I'm still trying to figure out what direction to run in.)  When mobs take comparatively long to beat down, I often prefer to play a melee character, as they are better suited to being in melee range and spend less time and effort kiting mobs around in an attempt to avoid damage. 

WoW has historically been a game that tended very strongly towards short mob life expectancy - in Wrath in particular, solo mobs could take no more than 2-4 hits and live a total of 10 seconds each - really short compared to soloing in any other MMO.  As such, it makes sense that I tried melee and ended up sticking with a mage.  With Cataclysm - and now especially Pandaria - it seems that they have made a conscious effort to slow combat down.  Health pools for both players and mobs are larger.  The mage has been given the tools to deal with this - all three mage specs can now have a snare on their primary nuke spell and access to previously spec-specific defensive abilities. 

POM, Ice Barrier, and Living Bomb, now all on one spec
Still, it's a big difference in feel, and this threw me for a real loop when trying to get back into leveling content.  In any other game, I would probably just switch over to one of my several melee alts (85 Warrior, 70 Pally, 45 Rogue, and instant Death Knight on the server of my choice), but with so many years behind this particular character as my main in WoW, that's a bit of a tough sell just because the class design winds are blowing in a different direction this year. 

Atmosphere of Pandaria

Assuming you don't hate the stylized graphics on principle, WoW has been getting prettier with every expansion.  Cataclysm's approach of tacking on a few new areas to fill in gaps within the old world map made the expansion in some ways disjointed, but they did a very good job of making each zone feel like WoW's take on a specific environment (desert, undersea, etc).  With a new, thematically consistent continent, Blizzard has tackled one consistent theme - China - and done so with some of their best results to date. 

On the downside, the story definitely took a while to grow on me. One Pandaren in Warcraft III was cool, and the idea of an expansion of them sounded cool, but the reality of an entire continent of bears talking in Chinese-accented English going on about the serenity - and comic appetite - of their people may be overusing the gimmick after all. 

Meanwhile, the story has inadvertently driven home how absurd WoW's current faction setup really is.  The majority of the expansion's content, as with past years, pits players against common foes, often on behalf of neutral NPC factions.  There is a strong effort to push individual storylines for the Horde and Alliance, but this only drives home how these are NPC factions that players are forced to live with. 

Players have no more influence over the actions of "their" side of the conflict than they do over the numerous groups of NPC's.  It is immediately obvious from the narrative that enlisting the local population to fight a war on a land where negative emotions can take physical form with catastrophic results is not a good idea.  However, your NPC's are no less hapless than any of the others in avoiding this outcome, and for this we divide the playerbase permanently in half, only to once again be sent off to kill common enemies once the storyline is complete.  At this point, the game would be better served leaving the two sides in place and having player characters be a third faction who can hang out with whichever group of NPC's they prefer for story purposes.

Moving Onwards
With the preliminaries resolved - the initial zone, two of the five levels, and yes, incidentally, taming pretty much every battle pet that moves on the continent so that's no longer competing with PVE questing for my attention - it'll be interesting to see how the experience shapes up.  The thing that's odd about my Pandaria experience is that I'm clearly not tired of the sandbox PVE experience - that's what's competing for my time in numerous other games.  It's possible that in another month, I'll be back to my routine of hitting the dungeon queue and doing whatever else strikes my fancy while I wait for the group to form.  Or perhaps I need to face reality and switch to a melee character. 

Regardless, my path forward in WoW is murky in a way that it hasn't been for years. 
At least there are Chinese dragons to collect?

STO's Buggy Anniversary

I haven't played much Star Trek Online since capping out one character on each faction last year.  I enjoyed the duty officer minigame far more than the space and ground combat that made up the traditional portions of STO, but I mostly ran out of stuff to do with my duty officers.  Thus, the annual anniversary event, with free starships for each faction as a rewards, was an opportunity for Cryptic to get me back into the game.  Unfortunately, they blew their chance to make a good impression through several bugs.

The Case of the Missing Bridge Officer Skills
Empty bridge officer skill slots - not a good plan, as you kind of need these.  (This was actually due to a second issue, see the end of this post.)
First up, I signed in to discover that none of my bridge officer skills were available in the space combat window.  I spent 10 minutes trying to mess with settings to figure out what I was doing wrong - time that proved unnecessary because the anniversary mission does not feature any combat in your regular starship, but that's beside the point - and eventually fired up Google. 

Apparently, this was an intentional bugfix of some sort made in a patch back in November but that incidentally requires that the player unassign all of their bridge officers from their slots once and then reassign them.  The comment from Cryptic when players complained on the forums was that they had mentioned this fix in the patch notes.  That would have been a somewhat unsatisfactory way to communicate if I had been actively playing at the time, but it was especially underwhelming several months later, when I could not find those patch notes if I wanted to read all of them. 

If you are going to break people's characters, however temporarily, you really need to provide some sort of pop-up notification that includes how to fix the problem.

The Mission That Would Not Complete
Having successfully reassigned the bridge officer skills that I turned out not to need, I headed off to complete the new anniversary mission.  A free ship is a reasonably big deal in a game where new ships are generally reserved for the cash shop.  In fact, the second anniversary festivities were what convinced me to try the game in the first place shortly after its free to play relaunch, and I was happy that I took part when I finally got to take my Odyssey class cruiser out for a spin at level cap. 

The new mission was a spinoff from a highly popular episode of TNG and featured a guest appearance by one of the show's original cast to voice their in-game character.  Most players had a good experience.  My experience was good... until I got to the end of the mission and did not receive credit for completing it.  I tried again, and was sent back to the mid-point of the mission to repeat a bunch of puzzles and story scenes... and not get credit again.  I tried and failed a third time. 

After this, it was back to Google for a second time in the evening.  It took a bit of digging to find the right search terms, but I eventually found half a dozen threads on the STO forums started by other players who got stuck in exactly the same place on the 3rd anniversary mission.  I saw no official confirmation from Cryptic that there was a bug or any plan to fix it, but a commonly re-posted workaround was to assign your NPC companions to tackle tasks that are NOT the tasks they say they are good at.  This is non-sensical, but it worked for me.  At least I knew the mission like the back of my hand at that point and was able to complete the Klingon version in under 20 minutes. 

As a little added thank-you bonus, the mission separates you from your normal bridge crew and therefore I ended the evening as I began it, with my bridge crew slots once again emptied for reasons beyond my control. 

Quality Assurance FTL?
Bugs happen, and sometimes Google is your friend - in my case, apparently the failing was to assume that I had done something wrong - twice in one evening - rather than immediately jumping to the conclusion that the game was broken and Google could tell me how to fix it.  I also get that you can't sell bugfixes for an additional fee in the cash store, and that is going to be the focus of a free to play game.

Even so, for an anniversary event like this one that is designed to bring back returning and/or curious players, a little quality assurance really might have made a difference.  If things had been fun, I might have settled in to work on some of the numerous missions that I never completed in my first trips to the game's cap.  As it was, I used up the extra time they could have spent trying to sell me on returning to the game trying to find workarounds for significant bugs.  I don't know whether that's more my loss or Cryptic's, but it's unfortunate. 

Hard Sell for the NDA'ed Marvel Heroes

A few weeks ago, a $20 starter pack to the upcoming Marvel Heroes game was on the list of things I was thinking I would probably purchase later this year - I figured that if the game was worth my time at all, it was going to be worth $20 to play as the characters I like rather than the free characters.  Seeing how they've run the marketing campaign since calls into question whether the studio is pushing hard to make money now, before the NDA comes down.  It also leaves no question that they are treating their customers in a way that I am not willing to be treated.

Better buy fast, before we make the deal worse
The initial presale plans were announced on January 9th.  At the time, the $20 single-hero package was described as "over $30 in value" including one hero, two costumes (one of which presumably comes standard on the hero, so really 1 extra costume), $10 in currency, and $10 in "bonus currency" (the larger packages came with correspondingly larger amounts).  The announcement stated that it was a "limited time" offer that "won't last forever".  

Apparently, the "limited time" ran out two weeks later with no advance notice, on January 23rd, and the "bonus currency" disappeared from all of the packages without any announcement.  There was no public comment on the situation for a few days, and then the studio came back on January 28th with a new offer.  In response to "huge demand", they're adding only $5 in "bonus currency" back to the bundles, noting that the original offer was higher for their "earliest adopters".  

The new announcement specifically alludes to how short the first "limited time" was, but declines to provide a firm deadline for the new offer.  They also made the new offer retroactive to January 23rd, suggesting that some players paid for a package in the interim and only noted after the fact that there had been an un-announced change to what they got for what they got for their money.

Context: What is lurking behind the NDA?
While all this is going on, there is also some sort of testing conducted under a non-disclosure agreement.  All we know are a few tidbits from a press tour that did not go so well.  A few articles:
  • Forbes' Erik Kain: "Marvel Heroes fails to provide a rewarding, fun action game experience - at least so far."  
  • Massively's Justin Olivetti: "I recognized what it was trying to be almost instantly: a superhero-flavored Diablo.  And you know what? That's what it is. Whether that's a horrible, shirt-rending event or something that sounds like a cool mix is up to you. "
  • Massively's Eliot Lefebvre: "Marvel Heroes isn't a heroic marvel" (article title)
  • Rock Paper Shotgun: And throughout there was one thought in my head: why did they let journalists look at this now? It’s possibly not the most positive thought."
Almost all of the pieces make the point that the game remains in development and could improve (Eliot suggests the issue is a design flaw that may not be fixable).  Still, I'm struck by how consist all of the reviews were.  This mid-December press tour is all the information that we have about a game scheduled to launch in "Spring 2013".  If the developers know that what's hiding behind the NDA is not going to be well-received, that certainly puts a different spin on their push to collect people's pre-purchase money ASAP, and especially before they are forced to drop the NDA.

Purchasing decisions in the pre-purchase era
As a Marvel fan, I would love for this game to be fun to play.  Instead, the picture I'm getting is a game that is neither a good action game (too grindy - kill 100 mobs!) or a good use of the Marvel setting (characters that are basically cosmetic covers over a small handful of archetypes, even if that means the Hulk can't punch harder than a non-super-powered street thug).  On the merits alone, I do not think it is a good idea to make a $20 non-refundable purchase to secure an extra $5 in currency.

As to the marketing effort, pre-order and pre-purchase campaigns are relatively established.  Historically, these promotions could be good for the consumer in the specific case where resources were limited.  When the store is going to sell out of NES cartridges or the server is not going to have the capacity to handle the launch rush, it's perfectly reasonable to allocate these scarce resources to those who were most dedicated and most willing to sign up in advance.  Over time, though, we're seeing more and more deadlines like the one that Marvel is offering that do not appear to have any basis in scarcity or benefit to the consumer and do appear to be timed to encourage a decision with as little information as possible.  MMO players are as individuals critical thinkers who are seldom reluctant to share an opinion, and I continue to be surprised that we as a group tolerate this treatment.

(Tangentially related story - we are now a month past SWTOR's expansion "pre-order" deadline, with no release date and no meaningful information about the expansion's content.  Questionable reasoning aside, I suppose one cannot fault Bioware's communication - they said the five days of "early access" would be reserved for those to paid before January 7th, and there has not been any hint to suggest that customers who pay in full between January 8th and whenever the expansion comes out will be allowed into the new content any faster.  I suppose someone might spin this as an improvement over the game's original launch, in which players were admitted to the headstart in the order in which they paid, but with no transparency as to when exactly that was going to occur.)

January Round-up and February Outlook

With the first month of the year mostly out of the way, what have I been up to?  I previously tracked this sort of thing on Twitter, but it was somewhat cumbersome to review my notes that way, so I figured I'd try a post format instead.

The two biggest shares of my gaming time in January went to the two great financial disappointments of 2012 - SWTOR and TSW.  In TOR I've been leveling my Agent Operative alt with the benefit of numerous unlocks but without the benefits of the subscription - my initial impression is that the penalties to exp as a non-subscriber are steep and potentially problematic, but I'd really like to get to the upper-mid levels before I draw too much of a conclusion on that front.  In TSW, I've cleared out Kingsmouth and Savage Coast and moved on to the Blue Mountains, where I'm finding my build perhaps too effective - I'm almost looking forward to being forced to change to deal with other types of foes down the road. 

I also put some time into pet battles in WoW, which I considered oddly a prerequisite for entering the new expansion because I did not want to go to Pandaria and constantly walk past pets that I could not yet tame.  Actually journeying forth into the new content was something I set aside for when I could clear out some time to dedicate to the task, and that time is tentatively coming up next month.  Blizzard is not confirming or denying whether there are new five-mans in the future patch 5.3, which makes it sound like many of the current endgame activities could cease to be meaningful if I wait too much longer. 

Other things on my calendar for next month include Star Trek Online, which will launch a new featured episode that awards a special anniversary starship reward, and possible Dungeons and Dragons Online.  I've been ducking into DDO from time to time for an evening when I want a change of pace, and the next game update is scheduled to overhaul/improve loot in some of the mid-level content that is next on my list of things to do.  As always, this potentially leaves everything else I could be working on - including my games of choice from this month - sitting on the sidelines, but such is the era we live in.

What are you all looking forward to specifically in the month of February? 

Pay For Content Vs Pay For Service

Ferrel of Epic Slant and Chris of Game By Night have a new podcast titled MMO Radio.  The show differs from their previous efforts with the Multiverse (where they invited me to guest twice) in that they have gone with the increasingly popular shorter format and also include segments on tabletop gaming.  The new format appears to be working for them in the form of more frequent updates - in the time it took me to listen to last week's episode and type up this response, they've recorded and released a new one.  All of that plugging aside, back to last week's episode

Describing Business Models By What You Are Paying For
Chris suggests that "Buy to Play" might be more sustainable than "Free to Play", and cites LOTRO as an example.  I have far more concerns about the sustainability of "Buy to Play", and I'd hold up LOTRO as the poster child for these concerns.  To understand why, we need to take a step back and look at how these models actually work.

If you go back into the old days - EQ1, early WoW, etc - MMO's charged for two things.  You would pay one-time fees for access to content (i.e. the game box and expansions) and recurring fees for services used to access that content (i.e. the subscription time, which was mandatory).  These core parts of the business actually haven't changed all that much with all the time that has passed and all the new terms and user interfaces that have been added since.  What has changed is how the charges for content and service are presented.

In today's non-subscription market, recurring fees for use of the content do not necessarily take the form of a straight up charge for a fixed dollar amount.  When your game's cash shop requires the use of consumables to clear death penalties, improve new gear as you obtain it, travel around the world, etc, that is how you are paying for the service.  For the question Chris asks about sustainability, the important point is that this is recurring revenue that the developer will continue to receive from you for as long as you pay for the game. 

The other extreme in non-subscription games is to sell off your content - and sometimes game features - as one-time unlocks that do not require any ongoing payment as you continue using them.  One big advantage to this approach when relaunching an existing game with years of content already created is that there is a lot of stuff already in game for new players - or existing players who are dropping down to non-subscriber status - to buy.  This is roughly how I see Turbine's model today - heavily focused on one-time unlocks for content (and sometimes features) with almost nothing in the way of one-time payments for ongoing use of the service. 

So which of these two approaches is more sustainable?  Whether pay-for-content is sustainable depends heavily on how frequently you are able to produce content.  As Ferrel pointed out on the show, DDO's adventure packs are perfect for this approach because Turbine can push them out every other month year-round.  If, on the other hand, you are in the business of making large open zones that you can only finish once or twice per year, perhaps the rate of content generation is not the best thing to tie your income to long term.  In this case - which is true for most MMO's - the only way for the business to be sustainable is to somehow charge people for continuing to play the game. 

Aside: "Pay to Win"
Many players who are or were a raiders in a subscription MMO have a profoundly negative view of the free to play cash shop model, which they widely dub as "Pay to Win".  This view makes sense when you look at what it means for them personally. 

The subscription fee does not scale with how much you play the game - in fact, sometimes the developer WANTS you to play more so you will stay engaged and stay subscribed - while paying through an item shop means that you are very likely paying in proportion to how much you actually play the game.  If you are used to paying the same subscription fee as everyone else and yet having the developer spend disproportionate attention making raid content for your single digit percentile of the population, then yes, in the short term, you'd rather have it the way it was in the old days.  Whether this ultimately pushes the entire genre in directions that you do not like is more of a long term problem....

2013 Prediction Update

It's been all of 24 hours since I posted my belated predictions for the year, and there is already breaking news. 
  • Turbine dis-confirmed one of my LOTRO predictions by announcing the addition of a new region in the upcoming Update 11.  I had predicted they would skip this roughly annual tradition in favor of saving more content for the fall expansion. 
  • Trion announced plans to publish the Eastern sandbox MMO ArcheAge in the West

    A decision like this one either does or does not make sense on its own merits based on whether Trion will make significant profit out of the deal.  There are probably also economies of scale in publishing additional titles now that Trion is already publishing two titles and counting (whenever End of Nations re-emerges) - SOE also announced plans to pick up an Asian MMO last year.  Overall, it doesn't disprove my theory about Rift going free to play this year, but the studio's backers clearly aren't throwing in the towel on the effort as a whole. 

    Bhagpuss also questions whether Archeage's release affects my call that we will get most of the way into 2013 without a "major event launch".  My gut still says no - the whole point of making a sandbox game is not to try and replicate the mass hype followed by exodus that has plagued the AAA MMO's of recent years.  Selling large numbers of boxes is great, but having 75% of your players leave within a few months will kill the community that you need to sustain your sandbox longterm.  Time will tell, but I am not expecting this to be an over-hyped event.
Anyway, if any of you have any wishlist items of stuff you that you don't think will happen, let me know so I can add them to my list and therefore ensure that they do come to pass just to disprove more of my predictions.  To start, a bonus tack-on prediction - despite Smedley's comments, EQNext does not launch in 2013.  (Given what we know of the game's business model, I will define "launch" as all three of 1) open to the public, 2) done with any character wipes, and 3) accepting cash.)

Belated Predictions For 2013

Last year's predictions did not go so well.  I predicted that it would not be a great year for new subscription MMO's, but I also thought that SWTOR would skate by as a high churn subscription title, and that WoW could not afford to leave Cataclysm sitting on the shelf beyond early summer.  Even so, I've found that I have a fair number of predictions either scattered through my blog and other peoples' comment sections, so I figure there's no harm in collecting all of my comic inaccuracy in a single spot.

Anyway, here are my belated predictions - I don't know if this makes my job easier because I have a month of additional information (see first item, below) or harder because there is less time left for the predictions to come true.  In any case, if I have predicted bad things for your favorite MMO this year, rest assured that my lack of accuracy well have guaranteed your game's smashing success.  :)

Rift Goes Free To Play in 2013
First up, a minor cheat by exploiting information that only became available in late January.  Two days ago, I would have said that Executive Producers Scott Hartsman's position against turning the game free to play would be enough to keep it from happening in 2013 - even if Trion's views eventually changed, failing to work ahead on the conversion would keep it from launching this year.

Then came news that Hartsman has departed from Trion Studios.  In the last week, we also learned that Trion's MMOFPS Defiance plans to launch with a buy-to-play model featuring a $60 box and no recurring subscriptions.  We already knew that the online strategy game End of Nations - assuming it survives being in-sourced into Trion proper - was going to be Free to Play.  Going back to last year, Rift already has an in-game store, and then there were the layoffs at Trion and the former End of Nations developers.

Moving this particular game to free-to-play is debatable, but Trion has investors to answer to.  As long as things are going really well, Trion has the ammo it needs to justify why they are continuing to buck the overwhelming industry trend.  If things have started to go downhill - and the layoffs suggest that they have - then we can expect Rift to lose its subscription in 2013.

LOTRO: Helm's Deep Or Bust
As I've previous written, I think LOTRO is under a lot of pressure to increase revenue THIS year.  Turbine's 2008 press release indicated that they have the license through 2014, with options to extend the term out to 2017.  We don't know whether the terms of the option years are favorable, and presumably the studio's new owners at Warner Brothers are capable of re-negotiating a reasonable deal if this is worth their time. 

That makes 2013 the year in which Turbine has to prove the game's worth.  LOTRO will not fold in 2013, but if things go badly it could very well close when the license issue comes due in 2014.  To this end, I expect the following:
  • Unlike last year's Great River update or the F2P relaunch's Enedwaith region, we will NOT see a new region added at the current level cap.  The price point on these new optional areas has generally been low, and that makes it a questionable investment that would be better saved for the next expansion.
  • Speaking of which, I expect the new expansion to require a minimum purchase of $50, up from $40 last year and $30 the year before.  As with last year, Turbine will offer plenty of opportunity to pay full price early and then discount the thing by 50% for an end-of-year sale once the early adopters have paid up.
  • The expansion will bump the level cap to 95.  LOTRO has lots of level-scaling content in past expansions that could be used to level to the new cap and skip buying the new content.  Making the cap higher makes that option less desirable because you would have more levels to grind out.
  • The actual battle of Helm's Deep - which, as in recent years, may get delayed to a patch after the expansion launch - will be presented from multiple different perspectives so that solo, group, raid, and monster players can all participate in this iconic bit of the lore.  
I probably won't be bored enough to count come 2014, but we're almost certainly not done with Turbine pushing something aggressive and unpopular into the cash shop and then gauging whether to backpedal based on the customer feedback.  It seems like we can expect this sort of thing roughly every other month.

Asheron's Call 3 Announced
It's possible that Turbine dusted off AC2 just as a lark of a weekend project.  Then again, we know that they've been working on a mystery title for a while, and it would make a lot of sense for them to work in their own IP so that they are not at the mercy of some rightsholder.

Blizzard Updates
This is a Blizzcon year, which means we will probably get some announcements in addition to the oft-delayed Starcraft II expansion.  My guesses:
  • WoW's next expansion announced, but will not be ready for beta in 2013.  After years of promising to try and get expansions out in a more timely fashion, Blizzard finally concedes that it's going to be 20+ months like the previous attempts. 
  • Blizzard announces a console based non-subscription spinoff of one of its existing IP's.  A recent rumor suggested that this was the real nature of Titan, the long rumored online followup to WoW, but that was supposed to be an original IP.  We know they've been flirting with consoles for years now, and I'm guessing that this is a separate effort.  It will be interesting to see whether it runs on current generation console hardware, as Blizzard's development cycle is so long that next generation consoles will probably arrive before this game does.
  • Titan will finally be announced, but will not be playable or in any way suggesting it will debut in 2014. Blizzard has had time to ponder how DIII went for them and see the way the wind is blowing, so this game will NOT have a subscription.  It will instead be designed from the ground up with something - content, characters, etc - that people can purchase to keep the revenue flowing.
Funcom goes out of business in 2013, probably taking its titles to the grave
I'm not going to belabor my analysis from last week - this studio was on shaky footing before TSW disappointed, and I'm not convinced that layoffs alone can balance the books, especially if they hurt the ability to deliver future updates.  I'm not sure what EA does on a day to day basis as the publisher for TSW - if they own the servers, billing system, etc, that would be a major impediment to any attempt to sell the title off. 

New Subscription MMO's
If an MMO studio asked me for advice, I'd say that attempting to launch a new MMO with a box price and a monthly fee is really poorly advised.  However, I don't think the industry is quite ready to let this approach die just yet.  Looking at two major upcoming releases that have yet to announce business models:
  • Wildstar: Will definitely have a box price at launch.  I predict it will not charge a subscription by the end of 2013 - either they'll be smart and not try or they'll be forced to reconsider between launch and the end of the year.
  • Elder Scrolls Online: With all the hype they're already firing up for this game's beta, this game shows all the signs of having a large budget, and they are declining to state their planned business model.  It's possible that they are going to go buy-to-play with frequent paid DLC and are saving this piece of news to build anticipation for the inevitable pre-purchase campaign. Still, GW2 aside, I will believe that a big budget MMO like this one is willing to voluntarily surrender the monthly fee when I see it.

    So I predict Elder Scrolls WILL launch with a monthly fee.  They will probably still have it through at least the end of 2013, but that may have more to do with launching late in the year than with the game's success.  (I do predict they will launch this year - even Blizzard doesn't start its beta process an entire year in advance of release.)   
Kickstarter Chaos
After proudly proclaiming 2012 the year of the Kickstarter-funded game - and cheerfully pocketing 5% of the proceeds with no obligation to help ensure that backers get what was promised - Kickstarter is due for a reckoning.  At least one video game product that received $1 million in backing will go bankrupt before delivering the promised game in 2013.

Kickstarter will make some token changes in response to the backlash, but will remain constrained by their business model - they make money when projects are successfully funded, not when they force creators to post information that dissuades people from backing risky and/or poorly thought out efforts.   Expect some minimal token effort before returning to business as usual, but the incident will cost the site some of its hip status within the blogosphere. 

No big winner, but perhaps balance?
Overall, I don't see a single MMO emerging as the big winner in 2013, the way that Guild Wars 2 arguably won the half of 2012 after its release.  When you look at Syp's list of new MMO's to watch in 2013, half either aren't traditional MMO's or else are unlikely to release in 2013.  As a result, we're likely to get at least 8-9 months into 2013 without a major event launch with the traditional cycle of hype - and all too often disappointment.  (We could go the entire year if I'm wrong and Elder Scrolls slips into 2014.)  Even the slate of major expansions is going to be relatively quiet since many of the big players released something in late 2012.   

This is a real opportunity for MMO's that are currently sitting in the middle of the pack.  Players will still wander from game to game, and now is the time where an existing product, with most of the rough edges from launch already smoothed out, can potentially make a big impression.  Even if all of the things I've suggested come to pass, 2013 could be a good year on the balance if we come out the other side with a solid pool of games that are quietly getting the job done.

    Revisiting Cartel Resale Prices

    Back in November, I correctly predicted that quirks to SWTOR's non-subscription model would drive down the re-sale prices for unlocks used by non-subscribers.  I then made an unfortunate attempt to apply basic macroeconomic supply and demand principles, concluding that the poor return on investment would discourage people from purchasing the unlocks to resell, thus gutting supply.  I therefore concluded that the time to buy was ASAP, before there was nothing left to purchase. 

    I now own account-wide unlocks for basically all of the unlockable restrictions, other than the guild bank (which I don't need because I don't tend to take my guild's stuff even when it's offered)
    Here at PVD, I'm not just the author of the analysis - I actually use it for my own purchasing decisions.  In this case, following my own advice caused me to overpay by probably at least two million credits for all of the stuff that I have since unlocked, when compared to better prices I have seen since.  It's hard to complain about that outcome when you consider that the credits I earned while playing at max level with one month of subscription time (some of which I spent starting new alts) turned into permanent account-wide unlocks for almost every feature available in the Cartel store - all without spending a single Cartel Coin.  The total would have been over 9000 Cartel Coins, at a real world cost of at least $80.

    A lopsided "exchange rate"
    I have been very surprised that the going rate for Cartel market items has gotten so low - many unlocks that run for around $5 in real money are available on the Global Trade Network for prices that non-subscribers can pay (i.e. no more than 350K credits due to the cap).  I would not have figured that people would open up their wallets for so few credits.  More surprising, this trend is not limited to the more expensive unlocks.  Some of the rarest items in the random gambling packs - items that people have not been able to get after spending $200 - are available for maybe 1-2 million credits. 

    A few possibilities jump out to explain what we're seeing here.  It's certainly possible that some of the inventory was purchased before people realized how little demand there would be, and that folks have been stuck with stuff they can't sell for months since.  It's also possible that some subscribers do not place any value on the stipend of Cartel Coins that is included in their monthly fees.  Meanwhile, my perception of what credits are worth is defined by what I can get on my max level main, but many newer players are limited to low level income.  Finally, the random packs do mean that some players are going to end up with rare items they don't want, which will go on the market. 

    Overall, it begs some interesting questions about who is paying for the Cartel Coins.  I get that there is a demographic that is categorically opposed to daily quests for any reason - I might even count myself in that number if not for the fact that they provide something to do while waiting for the random daily dungeon queue (which I actually enjoy running).  That aside, there's a real possibility that some players who do not own a max level character are dropping substantial amounts for real world money to get their characters set up with relatively modest amounts of in-game money for their leveling experience.  If so, it's a fascinating experiment in dev-sanctioned real money transactions.

    Rethinking SWTOR, TSW Relaunches

    I've been spending a fair chunk of my time on two of the more prominent MMO's that underperformed in 2012 - SWTOR and TSW - of late.  Both had to redo their business models within the first year of launch, and both revisions left me in some ways scratching my head.

    Given more time, experience in the games after their relaunches, and the limited detail the respective games have released, I have new theories about both games... neither of which would be good news for me as a customer of both products.  I get the impression that SWTOR is heavily dependent on its cosmetic item gambling packs and that TSW appears to be running a fire sale to keep the lights on for a few more months before going under.

    SWTOR - Funded by Gambling For Items?
    As someone who prefers to pay for MMO's on a non-subscription basis, I've had a hard time wrapping my head around SWTOR's new approach.  Almost everything I would have been willing to pay for was either given away for free or else has not been offered for non-subscribers to purchase at all.  I get the desire to sell subscriptions, but how do you make more money by expanding the audience if you're seemingly so opposed to actually making money from the new non-subscription players?

    I'm now increasingly thinking that the goal of Free to Play had remarkably little to do with expanding the player base.  Rather, it appears to have been about creating a justification for an aggressive cash shop aimed at the previous subscribers, with gambling for items as its centerpiece.

    Bioware reps are currently on an offensive to defend the Cartel packs, telling both the TORWars fansite and the game's official forums that revenue from the packs is funding the rest of development.  They put their money where their mouths are, releasing a second random cartel pack with different random items within around a month after the F2P relaunch, with two more packs already finished and more in the pipeline.

    We don't have the real numbers, but the claim makes some sense.  One of the last pieces of content before the incident at Darth Hater was a poll answered by 2,500 readers of the site - overwhelmingly subscribers - said that Cartel Packs and cosmetic armor were the two most popular purchases.  Players who read a third party news site are inherently going to be the most devoted players and not necessarily representative of the average player, but the numbers are intriguing.  From the survey, 24% claimed to have spent over $50 in real money on Cartel Coins, and 12% claimed to have bought 20+ Cartel Packs (which very likely cost over $50).

    This is not a random sample, but it does show that there are at least hundreds of players willing to pay $50+ in a single month on top of their subscriptions, and half of this particular sample was spending that money on Cartel Packs.  There's certainly money to be made from the cosmetic stuff - which is priced aggressively - but the random packs have to be a bigger bang for Bioware's buck when it comes to revenue per item sold.  This is a model that would never be tolerated in a subscription game cash store, but F2P may be just the excuse Bioware needed to get both their subscription fees and the most aggressive monetization normally reserved for non-subscription titles.

    (Aside: Curse has posted its side of the Darth Hater saga, stating that they took over the site with the new year, and that the entire founding staff departed voluntarily without saying goodbye.)

    The Secret Fire Sale?
    In the month since removing the TSW's subscription fee, Funcom has announced that they sold 70,000 copies of the game, representing a 30% increase.  They then held more layoffs.  When you look at the numbers in context, you can see why they celebrated the success in this fashion.

    According to numbers Unsubject dug up, Funcom was counting on 280,000 longterm sustained subscribers.  Instead, they did not even sell that many boxes - if 70K was 30% of sales as of mid-December then their total sales base at the time was roughly 230K and their current total sits somewhere around 300K.  This would indicate only marginal progress since the 200K copies sold number Unsub found at the end of the launch quarter, when he noted that the financials said the studio had not been profitable since 2010.

    The stated business model for TSW right now is that some people are going to continue with the optional subscription, and the rest will pay $5-10 for DLC content as it is released.  This model does not make any sense.  Out of that 300K copies sold:

    • Some have left for good, subscription or not.  
    • Another large portion - 70K new players and probably a fair number of less dedicated existing customers - are bumming around Kingsmouth and are months away from ever spending money on endgame DLC content.  
    • Amongst the previous subscribers, some folks will not care about the optional perks on the now-optional subscription and will drop down to paying a smaller amount for DLC only when it is released instead of paying a subscription every single month.
    • There is also the brave handful who opted for lifetime subscriptions - which Funcom appreciated at the time, but who aren't worth that much more income going forward.
    • The only new revenue here are new players who pay for stuff and previous subscribers who continue to subscribe but also choose to pay extra for DLC, rather than using the point stipend included in their subscriptions.

    With all of the layoffs, it is unclear how this studio is going to manage frequent content updates that people are willing to pay for - a crucial point because now they only get paid when they release new content.  Even assuming that they manage it, I'm just not seeing a source for an increase in sustained revenue.  This game already had a cash shop, and now may stand to make less money from its content depending on what current subscribers do when their time runs out.

    Given the unfortunate financials, one conclusion jumps out from this data.  Funcom just sold 70,000 of what are effectively $30 lifetime subscriptions to the launch game because they need the money right now to keep the studio open.  If I'm right, they're mortgaging their future income because otherwise they have no future.

    To be clear, I'm not writing this because I hate the game or want it to fail.  I'm actually enjoying myself.  And I'm putting my time where my analysis is by getting as much as I can out of the game right now, because I'm unfortunately not optimistic that this product will be around to play if I wait six months.

    Power Escalation In TSW

    I'm currently about halfway through the Savage Coast zone in TSW, and I've had a bit more time to play around with the game's skill system.  One of the things that I find very interesting is how the developers try to expand your skill options as you gain more ability points without blowing the power curve out of the water. 

    A key part of this plan is that higher end abilities tend not to do more damage/healing/etc.  Rather, they offer different and often more advanced secondary effects which might eventually add up to better performance if combined appropriately.  For example, sword-based finishers: 
    • Balanced Blade, the basic AOE attack that everyone gets to start with, does AOE damage around the player and then gives back some sword resources if any targets were impaired (a debuff that happens less frequently because it also blocks actions by the victim)
    • Five Petal Lotus, a mid-range ability does the same damage, but can center the attack anywhere the target happens to be, rather than just on the player
    • Clearing the Path (CTS), a few steps further down the tree, still does the same damage but also always counts as an armor-penetrating hit against targets that are afflicted with damage over time
    CTS is more powerful in that you can combine it with one set of abilities that make all your enemies afflicted, and then use your passive skill slots to load up on benefits that trigger when you penetrate armor.  All the secondary effects do a lot for your survivability, and even some additional damage.  All of this is incidental to doing the same damage as your base entry level skill.

    No Respecs - good or bad?
    One other point that seems to annoy some players is the lack of a respec option.  There is no limit on how many ability points you can get (well, until you run out of abilities to buy), and there is no increase in the amount of exp required to get ability points.  (The high end abilities do cost more ability points, but higher difficulty content awards more exp.)  As a result, the claim is that there is no need to refund spent points, because you will always have that the abilities you unlocked available as future options (including passive abilities, some of which are beneficial even if you do not use the weapon you got them from). 

    I was a player who would completely switch soul builds in Rift every few levels just to see what I could do with more soul points.  As such, this system does not bother me much - I'm more than halfway through unlocking all the basic "inner wheel" abilities for all of the weapons (even the ones I'm not using often), changing out my weapons as I go (I've stuck to blade and experimented with pistols, fist, blood, and now rifles).  Because of the relatively flat power curve, I don't think I'm suffering too badly from this - someone who power-burned straight to an optimal cookie cutter build may be objectively more powerful, and I do occasionally hit a wall (usually prompting a build swap) but in general I'm not having problems.

    That said, I can also see how someone who picked a single pairing early and did not spend any points outside those two choices could end up frustrated at mid levels with no way to jump ship on a build that is no longer cutting it.  If you just straight up swap into two weapons you have never used before, you'd in principle have to go all the way back to newbie land to start repeating content - though it's probably faster to take a step down in difficulty and bank up enough points using your existing gear to get started with your new combo.  Then again, if you really dislike your current build that could get frustrating, especially if you are similarly disappointed with your second attempt.

    Overall, I don't think it's a bad system because it offers an incentive - but not a requirement - to try different things (you can always buy abilities for weapons you never intend to use if you need a specific passive ability).  Increased options are a fun reward that is probably worth the price to me personally... but then I guess I like the system to begin with.  

    The Cost of Per-Hero Games

    The Marvel Heroes "free to play MMO Action-RPG" is rolling out pre-launch prepurchase offers that include a $200 "Ultimate Pack" for access to all heroes and costumes announced for launch.  Traditional MMO's with a premium package this expensive have typically had to throw in a lifetime subscription. In the case of Marvel, the pack is very clear that it does not get you anything beyond the heroes announced for launch (some of which have since been delayed but will be included in the pack when they are completed).  Instead, they are marketing the $200 as a discounted price - "a $750 value" compared to what it would cost to buy the characters individually.

    The sub-$10 character
    Looking at Marvel Heroes' cheaper pre-launch packs, individual heroes are bundled with some costumes and exp potions for $20, but my guess is that you will be able to get your characters for less than the psychologically significant $10 price point to encourage impulse purchases post-launch.  There seems to be broad consensus around this type of price point across a variety of other games in a variety of genres.  A few examples:
    • Champions in the MOBA League of Legends
    • Mechs in the mech-based FPS Mechwarrior Online
    • Heroes in the Warhammer Online Spin-off MOBA Wrath of Heroes
    • Most monster player classes in LOTRO (free to those who take the optional subscription)
    • Premade PVP "legends" characters in DCUO
    • The $9 action figures that grant access to DLC characters in the popular Skylanders console game series
    We live in an era of consumer objections to cash stores in MMORPG's and DLC's in console games.  In this context, it's remarkable how much customer acceptance there appears to be around business models in which companies sell access to individual pre-made characters for $5-10, even when this bumps the cost for access to the entire character roster into the hundreds of dollars. 

    What you get for the money
    A big part of the secret may be that you are getting something comparatively tangible for your money.  If you are playing the Marvel MMO then maybe it is worth $10 per head for you to pick up all of the Avengers who appeared in the movie.  Even the cosmetic costumes are potentially meaningful when you look at long-standing characters who have been depicted in dramatically different art styles over the decades.  Like DDO's paid content packs, it feels more rewarding to pay something to get something, compared to the model in various other games that charge players to remove restrictions that are added to make non-subscribers want to pay. 

    This particular model isn't broadly transferable to traditional MMO's because our genre has focused more on vertical progression using a single character.  Games like Marvel Heroes that were designed from the ground up to take advantage of non-subscription payment methods also have a big advantage over MMO's that were designed for a subscription, only to be revamped when the market refused to tolerate that model. 

    Even so, I find the concept vaguely compelling and perhaps even promising.  Most of the evidence from the last few years calls into question whether the prices the market is willing to pay are sufficient to support the development of the traditional MMO content model.  Meanwhile, here is an alternative in which studios are putting out regular, sustainable updates that customers are actually happy to pay for.  It's certainly not perfect, but it beats going out of business. 

    Blizzard Pays For Overemphasizing Item Level

    Via Blizzard tweet, we learn that WoW's patch 5.2 will remove the ability to upgrade the quality of endgame epic gear which they added to the game in patch 5.1.  The studio was forced to backtrack not due to the design merits of the system, but rather because they have spent years emphasizing the importance of item level (ilvl) in the game's incentive structure.  They have no one to blame but themselves that players are now over-reacting to anything that affects this meta-statistic.  To understand why, we need to look at both the history of ilvl and how it has been used as an incentive.

    Making a book-keeping stat into an incentive
    Item levels were originally an internal number used to determine how many stats each item got.  In principle, you could use this meta-stat (after accessing it via third party database or UI add-on) to compare gear (or to argue on the forums that a specific item should have higher stats based on its ilvl), but in practical terms it was irrelevant to players for years post-launch.

    Ilvl shot to prominence midway through the Wrath of the Lich King era when players began using a third-party add-on called "Gearscore" to add up the ilvls of a player's gearset as a quick and dirty way to check whether the player's gear was plausible for the content your group intended to complete.  Gearscore was not without controversy, but Blizzard brought it into the game's base UI anyway, adding the average ilvl of the player's gear to the UI and using it as a screening mechanism for the random group finder in patch 3.3.

    This change happened comparatively late in that expansion cycle, and applied primarily to content that players were already routinely and trivially completing (easy 5-man heroic dungeons).  Going out to get gear specifically to meet a minimum ilvl to be allowed into content came later, most prominently with the addition of the raid finder in Cataclysm's final patch.  During the same window, we've seen each raid expand to three separate tiers of loot - differing primarily in ilvl and associated minor bump in stats - that only further emphasize that increasing ilvl is an incentive in its own right, and not just something that happened incidentally as you upgraded your gear.

    Comment Update: Commenters point out that ilvl scaling is actually less linear than I remembered, making the upgrade system too powerful, not too weak.  The rest of the reasoning in this post about why focusing on ilvl as an incentive is a bad idea stands (and actually makes more sense with the correction).
    A Technical Increase In Power
    The new item upgrade system in patch 5.1 crossed an important line - increasing the ilvl of gear (along with marginal bumps to its stats) was explicitly used as an incentive.  The intent was to extend the benefits of continuing to earn valor points (from daily quests, random dungeons, etc) by allowing them to be used for small upgrades to certain gear.  A bump of 8 ilvl's may sound significant until you consider the context.

    In the launch game, ilvl's corresponded roughly to the level at which the player obtained the item.  However, max level group content at each of the game's level caps led to dramatic inflation of item levels, such that gear at level 90 is approaching ilvl 400.  As a result, the new system was only a 2% boost to the ilvl of one of your pieces of gear (out of 15-16 depending on whether you use a two-handed weapon).

    Even if you did eventually get this bump across the board (I'm not familiar with whether every single slot could actually be upgraded this way), a 2% increase in ilvl for all of your gear does not directly lead to a 2% increase in DPS or other output.  Other factors, including your inherent base statistics, scaling rules for increased combat ratings, and most importantly actual player performance are also going to impact character performance.

    In short, this mechanic was technically an increase in character power, but functionally small enough that it's all-but cosmetic.

    Running into the "optional" debate
    Blizzard's defense of the item upgrade system hinged on two arguments.  First, they state that players will quit if there is not stuff for them to do, and that many players will not do any in-game activity that does not increase their character power.  I think we can agree that this is mostly sound reasoning, with the caveat that most players would really prefer that "stuff for them to do" take the form of new content on a more frequent basis, rather than incentives to run the old stuff into the ground.

    Having said all of that, Blizzard tried to have it both ways by saying that the upgrades, while intended as an incentive to convince players to get valor points, are optional.  This argument is sound from a game design perspective for all the reasons I discussed above about the actual significance of such a small boost to ilvl.  Unfortunately for Blizzard, the correct design approach lost a battle of perceptions brought on by their own decisions to emphasize item level in incentive structures.

    Players were already complaining that they felt daily quests were not optional because the resulting reputations are required to purchase entry level gear to start raiding.  Allowing item upgrades exacerbated the situation because players eventually either run out of reputations to grind or else acquire superior gear by other means.  I don't believe the system worked on all gear, but it worked on enough gear to make these players feel that they were now obligated to continue doing stuff they did not want to do in order to get valor points to pay for the upgrades.

    I don't think Blizzard's position was wrong from a design perspective.  However, as I wrote a few months ago, I think they lost this battle for the same reason that they lost the battle over dungeon difficulty early in Cataclysm.

    Failure of the skinner box
    Blizzard is still in the business of trying to sell a service to customers, and you can only get so far by telling a customer who is dissatisfied that the merits of your design trumps their preferences.  If you tell the customer that they need ilvl - directly through minimum requirements for the raid finder and indirectly by using ilvl as an incentive - you should not be surprised that they believe they need ilvl.  Once that has happened, it is natural for these customers react poorly when told that they have to do something they do not want to do in order to get the ilvl they think they need.

    As Tobold points out in a post examining the motivations for botting, MMO's have increasingly misused incentives as a means of pushing players into trying other forms of gameplay - daily quests, dungeons, PVP, etc - that they do not enjoy.  History has shown time and time again that this CAN change player behavior, but DOES NOT change player preferences.  The numerous unsavory reactions - joining PVP matches only to try and sit AFK for the currency rewards, requiring gearscores far in excess of what content was designed for, and threatening to cancel because you feel "forced" to do daily dungeons - are a natural response.

    I recognize that studios are struggling to produce enough material to keep people paying, and that they need to get each player to use as much content as possible.  I recognize that incentives can be the difference between enough players in the dungeon queue to fill groups in a timely fashion and leaving newcomers high and dry.  In the long term, though, reducing the game to a "Skinner box" activity that you do only because it is a prerequisite for something you actually want to do (e.g. raiding with your friends) is a recipe for burnout and churn.  This particular example of pushing an arbitrary number far beyond its functional significance was an extreme case, but it is by no means the end of the issue.