Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Heroes of the Storm Alpha Business Model - Complaints Heard And Disregarded

The Heroes of the Storm "technical alpha" wrapped up on Tuesday with a mostly uneventful patch to what they are technically calling "beta" - seems like the same game it was on Monday, plus a new hero, some usual patch fixes, a new battleground, and addition of the game's new lower-tier ranked mode.  My experiences in the game have been generally positive, and overall I am okay with the business model.  However, I will say that it is very striking how - and why - in this model widespread criticisms are known and simply do not matter to the developer's bottom line.

How I spent my "Alpha"
From the reset in early October until Christmas-time I played this thing about 3-4 hours per week to complete daily quests and work on any heroes I did not own in that week's free play rotation.  At Christmas, they announced a unique portrait icon for reaching the maximum account level of 40 during alpha, so I made a push to do this.  In the process, I advanced all but one of the game's heroes to at least level 5.  This unlocks all talents for the heroes and also a one-time payoff of 500 gold per hero.  Collectively, I hit level 40 with a grand total of 52,000 gold, including one time awards of 6000 gold that all accounts get in the early levels and 15,500 gold for leveling heroes.  (Murky, who has yet to be free to play since the alpha reset, and the newly released Thrall are each worth another 500.)  I.e., I pulled down roughly 30,000 gold in normal (not one-time) income over a three month period.  

As an early alpha player, I was able to take advantage of a heavily discounted bundle that offered ten heroes who cost a total of 64,000 gold for $29 - more than half off, as 10,000 gold heroes normally cost $10 in the store.  This skewed my experience slightly in that I already owned many of my staple heroes before I had to start spending my in-game currency.  I was then able to pick up my top five favorites from heroes I did not own - Anub'arak, Azmodan, Gazlowe, Valla, and Rehgar - for 33,000 gold, and left the alpha with the remaining 19,000.  This sum buys basically any two heroes of my choice, but could in principle have gotten me to a roster of ten characters if I had been starting from zero.

Ten characters matter in Heroes due to how the game has implemented draft mode for ranked play.  In addition to an account level requirement, you must have permanent access to ten heroes - NOT including the weekly free rotation - because you could theoretically get the 10th pick and watch the first nine players pick nine of the ten heroes you own.  The community perceives this move by Blizzard as a way to try to encourage players to buy heroes for cash, though I can see some value in not having the weekly draft strategies vary extremely widely based on who is available for free that week.  The bigger issue is that, especially early on, players will very likely fill out their roster with the cheapest characters, which will skew the meta and also likely lead to acrimony with pick-up-group teammates when someone with does not own any top tier heroes who remain on the draft board. 

At the end of the day, I don't have too many complaints about a system where 2-3 hours per week for daily quests will unlock a character of your choice for free once a month.  The one flaw is that gold gain is heavily skewed towards the daily quests, with very slow gold gains (maybe 20-60 gold per hour) after your dailies are complete, which can make it feel unrewarding to continue playing beyond your first 2-3 matches of the day.  That aside, skins and mounts cost roughly what they do in other games and are purely cosmetic.  Bundles are underwhelming, though prices may do better in the future - you can buy a limited time package of a hero and their skin for 25% off, or you can unlock the hero with gold for $0 (almost always more than the 25%) and then pay full price for the skin (or wait for a future sale). 

Your complaints are known, but don't matter
With all of that as background, if you follow the community for this game anywhere, you will hear roughly the same complaints over and over again:
  • Players feel that gold gain per match (especially beyond the dailies) is extremely low compared to the cost of heroes.
  • Players do not like having to spend time leveling, including an hour or two leveling new characters to remove "talent gating" restrictions that often render that character ineffective, and high account level thresholds for the ranked modes (in my case, up to three months).  My readers can probably guess at this point that experience gain can be doubled through a cash store consumable. 
  • Players are very concerned about the significant one-time cost to get in the door for draft play, and the extremely high barrier before you own most or all of the heroes and thus are no longer affected by cost in your competitive draft picks.  
  • Some players are also objecting to the high price of cosmetic skins relative to heroes.  I buy fewer skins in this and other games as a result of the pricing, but at least these are cosmetic items and will be discounted for sales.  
Blizzard can read, so these complaints aren't news to them either.  In fact, one unusually brave interviewer actually asked about most of these topics and Blizzard stated that they are aware of the complaints but made the decisions deliberately to make money so they can support the game. 

The business model of a game cannot be a democracy, as the people in this case aren't even willing to pay for cosmetic items.  Likewise, there are many issues with the "good old days" of the mandatory subscription model, which among other things is all-but a dealbreaker for me these days.  The one issue we did not have in the subscription era was player buy-in/acceptance of the model; if you didn't buy, you weren't in. 

The decisions that developer make in games like this one (and others, such as Marvel Heroes) don't just write off the non-paying majority.  You can be paying (in my case, $43 for a title that is still in pre-release testing) and still get the short end of the stick to leave room for other people to spend even more.  You can also be paying a lot less (or nothing) if you're prepared to tolerate various limitations.  The price is that we end up with models where your experience is impacted no matter how much you are willing to pay - for example, even if you own all the heroes, your PUG teammates may not. 

I won't say that the good old days were all good, but I feel comfortable saying that there are parts of being a consumer in this era that are frustrating at best.  

Saturday, January 3, 2015

2014 Wrap-up: Resolutions, Expenditures, and Questions

2014 was a year when I moved to a new country, largely (though informally) dropped off from MMO blogging, and spent the majority of my time in a single game for the first time in years. (Perhaps 2008?)  I spent very little of that time in traditional MMO's and sat out the major MMO launch events of the year (which don't seem to have gone that well).  What did I plan to do, what did I actually do, and what did it cost? 

Marvel Heroes: $220

I started the year committed to a $130 pre-purchase of the thirteen hero Advance Pack and then added on $50 in cash store currency and a $40 team-up Advance Pack purchase.  I started the year still working on my first level 60 and something like 8 characters unlocked.  I ended it with 2175/2580 total levels, access to pretty much the entire current roster (all but one unlocked, solely because I haven't had time to play the latest two releases) and 32 out of 43 playable characters at level 60.  I might have been able to push through to cap everyone, but I saw no need to rush, especially with a few characters still waiting for their 52 reworks in the coming months. 

Having spent about as much time on this game as a traditional MMO, the amount I spent is mostly reasonable and the game treated me reasonably well.  The resources I did NOT spend unlocking all those heroes and team-ups sufficed to unlock the entire backlog of playable heroes from launch, and at least the next four new releases besides.  That said, with the current pricing strategy I did not have to think long before declining to "renew" the Advance Pack for 2015.  The discount sounds great on paper but it isn't large enough compared to all the frequent sales that don't require a year up-front commitment to bundles that include stuff you don't want. 

So, it'll be interesting to see where next year goes.  I think I will spend more than $0 and less than $220.  Probably some cash store currency, perhaps a bundle for the Avengers movie, it will depend on what's on offer and how the year is going.

Heroes of the Storm (technically alpha): $43
I was around for the alpha reset and bought up bundles containing a total of 14 heroes, 2 mounts, and a skin at a far greater discount than what Blizzard has offered since.  After trying the remaining characters during free weeks, I unlocked an additional 5 characters with gold.  Collectively, that's over half the roster (with gold remaining to unlock 2-4 more heroes depending on price point), and I have access to characters covering every combination of franchise/role currently implemented in game.  The goal was to get started with a budget around a retail game, and it looks like I'm good to go. 

World of Warcraft: $7.50 (discounted time card)
I used a pre-paid time card to tie up loose ends in Pandaria, including the pre-expansion event and somehow barely grabbing a LFR Garrosh kill before the pre-expansion talent revamp.  I liked Pandaria better when cherry-picking the fun parts at the end instead of trying to grind them them all on a deadline to try and jump the next hurdle.   

I've got some time penciled in for Draenor in a month or two.

Neverwinter: No Cash Spent
I own a level 60 character never paid Cryptic a cent.  Of course, the way this title works, actually gearing out that character would likely churn through a non-trivial amount of money.  Meanwhile, I spent significantly more time leveling and farming currency in the out-of-game portal than in-game, which in principle means that my Astral Diamonds helped encouraged someone to spend real money on Zen to sell me. 

SWTOR: No Cash Spent
I used a double exp weekend to finish up my Sith Warrior's class story.  The expansion presale campaign was a bit wasted on me, as I wasn't willing to clear out that particular month on my calendar to take advantage of it.  At this point I'm likely to leave SWTOR on the back burner for a few more months anyway, and perhaps they'll reduce or eliminate the expansion fee (as they did last round).

Dishonorable Mention: Hex ($20 Kickstarter contribution last year)
I'm not going to list out every game I've previously played and/or spent money on that didn't get my time and money in 2014.  Hex, however, earns special recognition in this category because the defining feature that convinced me to pledge to their Kickstarter in June 2013 remains unimplemented. The game's plans for PVE content were a huge focus of both the Kickstarter campaign and the accompanying website, but have seen repeated delays, most recently a somewhat-obvious late-year statement that PVE would not be added in 2014.

In the interim, they may or may not get wiped out by a lawsuit from Wizards of the Coast (that they may or may not deserve - I've seen completely convinced people on both sides, and doubt that the real legal meat is available to the public at the moment) that certainly wasn't listed as a budget contingency in their Kickstarter. 

I can't say who the dishonor actually falls on (perhaps myself for having decided to offer up $20 and considered paying more), but it's a typical tale for crowd-funded video game projects, and I wish all of you who backed various MMO-hopefuls better luck. 

My relatively modest mop-up project on this front was mixed.  I did complete Uncharted 3, and I also tried Infamous 2 before concluding that I didn't like it and writing the thing off.  I also procured a copy of Batman: Arkham Origins that I'd like to finish someday, but decided not to let that stop me from getting a PS4 for Christmas.

2014 Releases:
I've actually spent a few hours, and zero dollars in the open beta/soft-launch for Infinite Crisis.

That aside, TESO and Wildstar both reached the end of 2014 with subscription business models intact.  Based on the incorrect assumption that the game would launch on consoles in 2014, I had assumed that TESO in particular was unlikely to make it.  Whether either makes it to their respective first anniversaries without replacing their business model is a separate question.  In a possibly related story, Massively reports you can no longer purchase a 6-month subscription to TESO; it would make a ton of sense for the game to rip the band-aid off BEFORE the unspecified console launch. 

I'd also asked if we would see any F2P-relaunched titles get the axe in 2014, and SOE of all people came through by killing several titles, including Vanguard.  I guess that means so long to my former low level Goblin creature, gone off to wherever the inhabitants of Telon have ended up. 

And that's 2014, on to another year. 

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

More From the Heroes of the Storm Technical Alpha

Cooperative PVE in Blizzard's technically upcoming MOBA, Heroes of the Storm, has quietly taken a high spot in my gaming rotation due to the game's polish and familiar faces. 

I got into the "technical alpha" for Blizzard's Heroes of the Storm MOBA back in June and promptly did not play it.  Given a business model in which matches played translated into characters unlocked, it made little sense to play before the beta reset.  The game remains technically in alpha despite a functioning cash shop and allegedly over 2 million concurrent users during my gaming hours, but Blizzard announced earlier this month that hero and skin purchases and unlocks will be permanent. 

Yes, the chat claims there are 2,000,000 players online.  This has to be both the biggest "alpha test" in software history and the biggest abuse of the term "alpha test".
The game has largely met my expectations.  Compared to League of Legends, the game is more cooperative - your team has a shared level, so you never risk hampering your team by damaging foes and thus "stealing" experience or resources.  You unlock talents at fixed team levels without the need to return to your base hub to spend time shopping - and opening the door for a team to hit level 10 mid-battle and suddenly bust out a bunch of newly unlocked heroic abilities. 

Collectively, I play this game much like I play Marvel Heroes - the maps are the same but my approach to the maps is different depending on who I am playing.  The huge advantage of setting the world among Blizzard's various properties that the characters are already established - they look and sound like they should so even in the space of a few lines, ability animations, etc, you can recognize and appreciate that you're playing a familiar face. 

Business Model
My current roster
The business model will be familiar to League of Legends and Marvel Heroes players, but with a few quirks. 
  • Players will have access to a weekly rotation of 5-7 heroes (the final two are available at higher account levels, and typically have more complicated kits) for free, and earn currency that can be used to unlock characters permanently.  One possible issue for people looking to jump in with their friends is that this roster is applied to the entire game, so you and your friends will be stuck with exactly those five characters on your first play sessions. 
  • You can pay between $4-10 to unlock characters immediately, with better "exchange rate" compared to in-game gold for the more expensive heroes (and a huge premium for brand new releases).  
  • There are hefty one-time bonuses for your first few account levels (so you can unlock at least one character and be less at the mercy of the weekly rotation) and for trying each character to account level 5 (to encourage you to do so).  
  • Beyond these, Blizzard is very likely tuning gold gain, which is currently very heavily slanted to daily quests.  These quests effectively offer up 100 bonus gold per match for playing a certain type or franchise of hero, compared to 10-30 base gold depending on the game mode and whether you win.  Very rewarding to log in once a day (or every 2-3 days, as you can hold up to three dailies in your quest log) for an hour, significantly less rewarding to continue playing after you've cashed in.  
  • At the moment, it looks like you can expect to unlock a new hero every month or so depending on which price bracket you are aiming at, which is not bad.  
Blizzard is also offering some bundles, which can be a good way to establish a baseline stable of heroes to run your daily quests with.  I put $43 into the game when the tech alpha reset happened to snag some limited time offers.  The current bundles aren't that impressive but I assume that more promotions will happen as the game is actually open to the public.  

The shop also includes cosmetic skins, most of which are $10 though some are as low as $5 or as high as $15.  Cosmetic mounts are also available for $10-20.  That said, Blizzard has an unusual number of free visual options, including color variants for every skin and mount in the game (unlocked free with character experience) and exclusive gold-only cosmetic skins to sink some of that gold so that players will pay for heroes with cash instead. 

There are definitely some bugs left to sort out - for example, losing a cooperative match awards no money or exp and does not display a match results screen so you can determine how you did - but overall this game is looking solidly like what we would have called a beta before marketing people killed that term.  For the moment, I am logging in whenever I have daily quests available, and sometimes playing beyond that.  Given my calendar and the fact that I haven't really stuck with a MOBA in the past, this is relatively high praise. 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Playing on Their Schedule

Syp has posted his latest action plan for fitting four separate MMO's into a week.  I don't have anything so specific - no one is expecting multiple weekly columns about different MMO's from me - but I am starting to arrive at a decision tree of sorts for my MMO time.  For better or worse, non-subscription titles combined with daily/weekly/monthly quest rewards often leave a clear-cut choice for my limited gaming time. 

My decision tree (in rough order starting from 30 seconds total in front of a computer all day, down the list as time permits):
  1. Log into Marvel Heroes to collect the daily login bonus (+1 daycount towards exclusive pets, team-ups, and other goodies). May immediately log out depending on which of the below is available. 
  2. Log into Neverwinter once daily for 2-3 minutes to invoke (+1 token towards an epic quality healer companion at the end of a year) and send my profession minions off to farm cash store currency for me.  If possible, check the web portal roughly twelve hours later to refresh completed missions. I've bought an account-wide cash store mount this way, time will tell if all this farming eventually pays off in actually playing the game itself.
  3. Time-critical content (will be gone or massively harder forever, may need daily attention).  Last week, that meant several loose ends in Pandaria that I feared would be prohibitive after the patch; in particular, I pushed to finish all of the of the Siege of Ogrimmar LFR wings once so I could say I'd done them, as I feared this could be a huge mess after the patch due to nerfs to "smart" healing abilities.  
  4. Time-sensitive content (typically not unique/not gone forever, but significantly more valuable to play this game at this time).  Last week, this meant the Heroes of the Storm Alpha, which was offering double experience.  I could also see Heroes of the Storm occupying some time every 2-3 days due to how its daily quest rewards and weekly rotation work. Some of Marvel Heroes' weekly events qualify because I like either the event or the rewards.  A monthly visit to the Darkmoon Faire if I have a WoW subscription active falls into this category. 
  5. Other content.  Marvel Heroes has typically fit in here, but this accounts for less of my time as I finish leveling more and more of the game's playable characters.  Expansions - WoW? Rift? would fit here.  I.e. anything else that would ordinarily fit under the category of playing the games normally.
  6. Oh right, I have a blog that I used to post on, don't I?  Funny how you don't get this far down the list when you have a toddler.  See also, not getting around to new MMO launches.
Most of these trends have been around for a while now, and there are definitely days where I feel like some daily incentive is pushing too hard in the direction of having to play a certain type of content a certain way.  Then again, I suppose there are days when having a good idea of the most valuable use of my time can help dodge decision paralysis from having too many options.  It is what it is. 

Monday, October 6, 2014

Pay Not To Play, Revan Style

"The sad truth with SWTOR is that I'd pay Bioware a fair amount of money - possibly as much as I've spent on the game during sporadic subscriptions - if they just removed the gameplay and offered an interactive movie version of the story in which my character just wins all the fights after I've chosen my dialog.  I suppose double exp is the next best thing in that at least I don't have to do any side quests, but this also does NOT motivate me to get back into the game when the exp drops back down to the normal rate."
- Me, back in March
Bioware has launched SWTOR's latest expansion pre-sale campaign with an odd pre-order exclusive - pay to get out of playing anything but your class story. Customers who pre-purchase the digital expansion for $20 and ALSO subscribe to the technically subscription-optional title will gain more than 12 times the usual rate of experience from their class story missions.  The boosted missions grant enough experience to reach the maximum level of 55 without doing any side-missions, PVP, dungeons, or other content to supplement their experience gain. 

Bioware's decision to offer eight distinct class stories - each with writing, production, and acting costs to rival a reasonably sized game - added significantly to SWTOR's notoriously high budget.  The investment largely failed to pay off, as players burned through the one-eighth of the story content available to their characters inside of a month and canceled their then-mandatory subscriptions.  The concept of movie-quality stories for each additional character sounded nice in principle, but in practice I was never able to get excited about taking characters to the same worlds in the same order to do (or work around) the same planetary storylines - sometimes with classes that played similarly - just to eventually earn a minute or two of conversation towards the class story plot. 

And thus the compromise - you still cannot get out of playing at least some SWTOR to see the story, but you can get out of playing most of SWTOR.  Only trouble is, that may still be more SWTOR than I'm willing to play, much less pay for.  Such is the peril of marketing NOT playing your title. 

Thursday, September 11, 2014

A Waste of Draenor?

I'm on the fence about the schedule for WoW's upcoming expansion and 10th Anniversary celebrations.  I've long since ceased to make purchasing decisions a matter of principle, but I am concerned and a bit puzzled by the rushed pace that the calendar seems to be dictating.  

WoW's fifth expansion has taken so long to produce that it has bumped into the game's 10th anniversary.  An announcement this week clarified how the schedule will work - the expansion launches on November 13th, the anniversary window begins on November 21st, and the last opportunity to get the goodies will be on January 6th.

The centerpiece of the festivities is a revamped level 100 version of the classic Molten Core raid from WoW's launch.  Getting there will require that players purchase the expansion box - at an increased price of $50 compared to past $40 boxes - and gain the ten new levels in just under eight weeks.  (The preceding 90 levels are a moot point, as the new box includes one instant level 90 character upgrade credit.)  On a shallow level, this is a way to sell boxes and game time, but I wonder if this was a missed opportunity.

I sat out Pandaria's launch due to newborn, and thus incidentally got the expansion box for half off on Black Friday and got to experience the game with the 5.0 jitters polished out.  While I'm not opposed on principle to paying full price and showing up at launch, I probably won't enjoy the journey nearly as much with the deadline.  I also don't understand why it's in Blizzard's best interest to rush players to the new max level before month two of the new expansion cycle when they have yet to release an expansion in under 22 months.

Finally, there's the nostalgia factor.  The 10th anniversary should have been an opportunity to bring back millions of former players to see what Blizzard has done with the game in their absence.  Perhaps the cynical math says that $65 for the box and a month of game time is the best outcome Blizzard can expect from these customers.  Otherwise it would seem like slapping a large upfront purchase and a deadline is not the best on-ramp for people who may be one or more expansions behind the times.  Does it really make sense to take players who last saw their characters three talent overhauls ago, catapult them past all the current expansions, and rush them through the new one, landing them right back at the endgame that may have driven them from the game in the first place?

If anything, I'm thinking I might enjoy resubscribing for a month or two now with no particular pressure to do anything but play around in Azeroth since everything meaningful will be reset in two short months anyway.  There are pets to battle, stories to finish, mounts and achievements to collect, and any number of other things that I'll be rushing past if I do take part in the expansion rush. 

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Cost Of Letting Go

Scott Jennings' pretty slideshow about the lifecycle of an MMO player already lured Spinks out of several weeks of retirement, so I suppose there's no harm in joining in.  His bottom line is that MMO design is not set up for players to come, enjoy the game, and leave.  I'm inclined to agree, but I don't see how to address or ultimately solve this problem. 

It's been a less-than-great news week in MMO's.  Wildstar, which by Tobold's estimate sold fewer than half a million copies, announced that they were dropping pre-launch promises of monthly updates and consolidating their remaining players onto "megaservers".  Most people who are actually playing Wildstar seemed to agree that something had to be done to consolidate the remaining playerbase, but objectively it's hard to see this as anything other PR-speak to avoid saying that they are merging servers.  No designer goes to the bother of launching with the 2004 server model and realizes out of the blue three months later that it might be better if everyone playing the game could actually play together, with the added bonus of removing pesky dedicated servers for roleplaying, non-English language EU servers, etc.  Meanwhile the Elder Scrolls, which was the other late spring release that was going to save the big budget subscription MMO business model, has announced layoffs

So why haven't the presumably intelligent people behind these projects caught on to Scott's simple advice to "let it go"?  Or perhaps is that exactly what Zenimax has done?

Re-defining MMO's to have a beginning, middle, and end and a tidy way for scaling as players come and go hits basically all stakeholders in the current genre. 
  • As Scott's slides describe, many old school MMO players are playing to be with their friends, not for the game on its own merits - for these players, accepting churn means that the experience they wanted is already gone.  
  • For investors funding these hundred million dollar projects, the reality that you won't turn each copy sold into $200/year in perpetual subscription revenue means that you can't recoup your investment.  
  • And for the developers - I assume this was Scott's audience - the logical consequence of his modest proposal is the ship-and-layoff-the-team model that single player games publishers have done for years. Some number of players will continue to pay to rent an online version of the Elder Scrolls to use like a single player title, it may not be possible to retain the rest no matter how much you spend on continued development, so why NOT launch with a solid base to monetize and then cut your losses on any continued development expenses?
I've spent the majority of my gaming time and budget in 2014 on Marvel Heroes, which I play functionally as a single player title, so I suppose I'm the market that you gun for under Scott's approach.  This approach, however, has its costs.  In over a year post-launch, Marvel Heroes has added only a single new story chapter - the new one for last year's Thor movie takes me about 30 minutes to replay - so the beginning, middle, and end may be closer together than most players will be prepared to tolerate.  It does not appear that the team has suffered layoffs, but hero releases and events feel increasingly rushed, while everything else is routinely delayed by weeks or months as the team focuses on additions that actually bring in more revenue.

I'm not disagreeing with Scott, as nothing about the decade post-WoW suggests the old ways work - clinging to shipwreck debris might seem better than nothing but won't save you from the whirlpool threatening to suck you to the bottom of the ocean.  The challenge is that from where we are today the cost of letting go is obvious - either you end up somewhere completely different from old virtual world MMO's (as I have), you jump on a bandwagon likely headed for catastrophic failure, or you gamble your money on a crowd funding project that will take years before potentially ending in catastrophic failure.  It's just not clear where the other side of the maelstrom leads. 

(P.S. On that cautionary note about crowd funding, Camelot Unchained announced this week that it was delaying its alpha by six months, with a vague promise that the over nine thousand backers who pre-paid for alpha access over a year ago will be compensated with some combination of founder's rewards, in-game currency, and game subscription time if it slips further.  The unspoken assumption is that there will eventually be a launched game in which to grant these compensation measures.)