Thursday, October 31, 2013

A Nomadic MMO Autumn

I've spent most of 2013 subscribed to one primary MMO and dabbling in maybe a single other non-subscription title at any given time.  For whatever reason, I ended up resolving to tackle some of the backlog and logging into seven different online games in the last week.  I dunno how folks routinely cover as many games as Syp or Chris from MMO Reporter manage this, because it's exhausting.  Anyway, what I've been up to:
  • FFXIV: This game has quietly been my go-to since mid-September.  It's a good mix of keeping enough of the new school - public quests, group finder, and solo-ability - but with some old school elements that are a welcome change of pace.  I don't mind that I was playing for over a month before I qualified for a mount or that I'm less than half-way to level cap after six weeks.  In some ways, this game caused my current "crisis" by pushing everything else off the plate. 
  • Guild Wars 2: This went on a one-day sale for $30, which is the price point at which I'm willing to snag a AAA buy-to-play game as an impulse buy.  I had a ton of trouble actually playing the game because their email authenticator would not work and it took seven CS tickets to get someone to read the ticket and agree to remove this feature.  (Aside: the only other MMO where I have ever needed an extended exchange of tickets due to new login restrictions that the provider added - Guild Wars 1.)  I spent an evening, gained a few levels, and it didn't leave much of an impression.  I definitely could have been looking in the wrong places, or this might just not be a title that I'm going to like (which was why I didn't buy it earlier).   Not going to rush this one, pinging some folks I trust for suggestions on where I should be looking before I spend more time heading in the wrong direction. 
  • LOTRO: Turbine has turned on double exp for an entire month in advance of their upcoming expansion.  I've been behind on solo content in LOTRO since a few months after the game's launch, but 2013 has been the year when I haven't even managed the token effort to finish the epic story and hit the level cap.  At this point, my favorite part of the leveling game are the non-combat quests where I wander around the towns of Rohan doing things that feel like the belong in Middle Earth, but that interactive story isn't quite enough to convince me to come back.  Also, possibly odd decision by Turbine to try and bring back inactive players just before a major class revamp that is drawing much concern from current players - it might actually have been easier to get the new system if I didn't just take a refresher on how things used to be. 
  • Hearthstone: I'm not playing this thing daily - maybe once or twice a week - and I'm still losing the overwhelming majority of my games, but I am at least starting to get a hang of which characters not to play or at least how to revamp their decks so that I might have a chance against the non-overpowered heroes.  Game imbalance may play a larger role in my mixed experience in this game than I initially realized.
  • Rift: Not sure this one counts, but I did log into four characters long enough to tell Trion not to recycle all my names.  I sympathize with the intent, but I feel these drives are misguided - you're still not going to get the name DeathKnight because A) your current characters are already named and B) someone else is going to beat you to it if it does get freed up, which means you're going to have to go back to either spelling it wrong or adding non-English characters that will make it harder for normal players to type your name in a day or two at most. 
  • Marvel Heroes: I forget why I popped back into this game - probably for the sole reason of continuing the "different game each day" trend that I had going.  Well, there was a bonus exp/loot weekend that kept me involved long enough to finish the story and explore all the improvements.  This game had a rocky launch week and I'm really impressed with how far they've come - both quality of service and quality of life are dramatically better for such a short time post-launch, and bode well for the team's ability to set and meet a schedule.  My biggest complaint now is that there are so many heroes in the queue that it's going to be months before the ones I really want get added to the game, and secondarily that you need to download a second 12 GB client to access the test server if you want to try before you buy.  That's not bad in the broader scheme of things.
  • SWTOR: I've been mostly out of game for a few months now, and thus have missed two content patches.  The new stuff is great as always, but it doesn't seem like it's going to last that long.  I've also got an unfinished Sith Warrior about to tackle Hoth followed by his final story chapter, after which I may move a character over to play with the Ootinicast folks. 
Have you found yourself wandering the halls of multiple MMO's, or is it just me?  

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Incorrect Blizzcon Predictions for 2013

It's been so long since a Blizzcon that I've forgotten how I used to post my comically incorrect predictions before the show to see how badly they would turn out.  Coming in late means there are some gaps that have already been filled, but there's plenty of room for me to write stuff that we'll be mocking in a few weeks!

  • New expansion is all-but confirmed and I'd say level 95 is a given - no reason they'd suddenly go back to 10 levels now, but I doubt they'd do fewer than 5.
  • I suspect the foe will be the Burning Legion.  For one reason or another there seems to be a ton of nostalgia for TBC and we're running out of things that are on Azeroth that anyone has heard of but that we haven't fought before.  I'm suspicious that the end of the Garrosh raid leaves a loose end that the Burning Legion would be happy to tie up.  
  • I'm going to go out on a limb and predict no new adventuring classes or races.  We had three races in the last two expansions, and Blizzard had historically said this was a huge load on the art people.  Meanwhile, with holy trinity imbalance being what it is, they cannot add any more classes that are unable to tank or heal, and at some point there are going to be unsustainable balance issues if they have to keep juggling more tanking and healing specs every expansion.  
  • Instead, I'm going to predict a continuing focus on minigames and other things that offer progression but NOT direct adventuring advancement.  The Farmville minigame and Pet Battles have been two of Pandaria's best-regarded features.  A significant overhaul to professions, possibly including one or more new ones and profession-based content would make a ton of sense.
  • Blizzard will NOT announce the game is going Free to Play.  The Blizzcon crowd is the demographic who signs up for the annual pass subscription, not the crowd that wants to pay less.  Even if WoW was going non-subscription, the news would NOT play well to this audience.  
  • I don't expect to see any faster than Blizzard's normal 20-month time table, placing the expansion in summer 2014.  If they were to stand up for the keynote and say "oh by the way, beta starts on Monday and you're all in", that would certainly be the show-stealing headline, but Blizzcon has not been that good at show-stealing headlines.  
Diablo III

The expansion is already announced, will be playable (I think they've confirmed this?), and presumably going to be a big push of the show.  Ditto the console ports.  If there is any major Diablo news, it will be some sort of new cash shop or other form of ongoing revenue to replace the soon-to-be-closed real money auction house. 

Starcraft II

I haven't heard anything about the second expansion (a.k.a. third game in the trilogy, to justify a $60 price tag for a new game rather than a $40 price tag for an expansion).  I assume Blizzard will remedy this.

Heroes of the Storm

Blizzard re-titled their upcoming all-stars MOBA, suggesting that it is moving along.  There will probably be an early build playable.  I doubt this will be launchable anytime before mid 2014.


Probably the closest launch window of Blizzard's projects, so I expect a fair amount of chatter, but probably not a lot of real news with the beta already well underway.  I predict that all attendees will be given closed beta invites. 


Nothing to see here (back in January, I'd predicted this would finally be the year).  

Say what you will about WoW's decline, but Blizzard actually has four separate projects that are in the plausibly live and charging money for something new in the next year (NOT counting SC2, but their expansion is recent by Blizzard standards).  They're pushing a new integrated launcher for all their games through the Hearthstone beta, using one friends list across their entire platform, and handing out cross-title goodies in their Collector's Editions.

I predict they are going to go a step significantly further, to SOE's model with a single in-house currency shared across all the titles (probably re-branding Balance and no longer expressing it in real world dollar amounts), and increased incentives to try multiple games. 

At a minimum, I expect the WoW subscription will include a nominal amount free gold in Hearthstone and possibly free gold or other cash store currency for DIII (if I'm right about expanding that game's cash shop) and Heroes of the Storm - WoW's own longstanding pet and mount shop may move onto this new model.  (Not innovative, SOE has done this for years, even before they were champions of non-subscription models.)  I don't expect to see a higher premium plan along the lines of SOE's All-Access plan because it's not clear what they would offer players of the non-subscription titles other than more Blizzard Bucks.   

What do you all think is coming in just over two weeks?  Are you likely to care? 

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Blizzard: Last Bastion of the Real Beta

In a comment over at Azuriel's place, Zardilann says my post about Hearthstone had him worried about the game's business model.  It hadn't occurred to me that my post might be an example of the trend which has caused us to cease to have real MMO beta's anymore.

Hearthstone hits two of the three main criteria for a free to play title that claims to remain in beta for marketing reasons, but has actually soft-launched.  The game has a functioning cash shop and recently conducted its last wipe of beta account data.  It also has a level of polish - albeit not necessarily balance - that most live launched titles would envy.  Thus, I'd all but forgotten the final missing piece - the beta is still a closed beta (not open to the general public). 

I wasn't thinking of this product as a beta because MMO's don't do public closed beta testing anymore.  Say what you will about them, but Blizzard is basically the only studio that still does multi-month NDA-free come-as-you-please public testing of its upcoming products.  Pretty much every studio out there uses one or more restrictions:
  • Many beta tests remain locked down under a non-disclosure agreement until the last possible moment (see increasing grumblings about LOTRO's Helm's Deep expansion), while heavily marketing non-refundable pre-purchases.  Some titles have gone so far as to offer long-term or lifetime subscriptions as an offer that expires before the NDA on the beta test does. 
  • Games that do conduct public testing often restrict access to limited time weekend events.  These are unrealistic for three reasons - they artificially cram word of mouth into a single weekend because that was the only time when people could play an upcoming title, they prevent players from digging too deep (both due to the short time and restrictions on available content/levels) and by doing so they create unrealistic populations for open world events during the beta weekend that will not be seen in the live game as players spread out in levels.  
By contrast, Blizzard's approach is to let their product speak for itself.  To be clear, Hearthstone's positive buzz is not in any danger from a negative post on Player Versus Developer.  If anything, more than one lower profile title has taken an overly critical article and turned it into a publicity stunt for the game by calling media attention to protest how their poor little game was wronged.   The real concern is that if the underlying title is actually bad, it won't just be one post on one blog, but bad posts on all of the blogs.  This is why we don't get to have nice things such as real beta tests anymore from anyone other than the too-big-to-care Blizzard.  It never occurred to me that in accurately reporting my experiences, I might be part of the problem.

Aside: More Hearthstone commentary
Not the main point of today's post, but I figured it only fair to address some of the comments about my earlier Hearthstone impressions. 

Commenters make a case that my criticism was unduly harsh given the game's beta status.  There is some question about whether match-making is working as intended, or at all, at the moment.  Meanwhile, my win-loss record seems to vary dramatically based on what class I'm playing, which suggests some combination of balance issues and/or nuance to certain classes.  I lost six games in a row - including a 0-3 Arena elimination - playing as a druid, and then immediately won two games to finish the daily quest after blowing up my custom deck and starting over from scratch with a completely different strategy. 

Because they are accepting real money for entry into arena tournaments, I maintain there is a limit to how far the "it's still beta" excuse can be carried.  Moreover, if there is no good way to learn to play the game because of the game's focus on sending players to be slaughtered by general PVP population, that is a legitimate flaw with the title.  Time will tell, especially as more of the general public gets into the game. 

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Hearthstone Constructed Match-Making: Profiting From the Stomping of Newbies

Blizzard's Hearthstone is a well polished game that I would have enjoyed greatly if not for its trading card game (TCG) business model.  After a few hours in the beta, I am finding my newbie basic decks consistently demolished in un-ranked one-on-one play by decks stacked with epic and legendary cards.  Based on where Blizzard does - and does not - get paid for their work, I am not optimistic that things can or will change going forward.

I would rather be paying....
Hearthstone is free to download.  Playing against "basic" and "advanced" NPC AI decks is completely free, and allows you to unlock all nine heroes with 20 "basic" cards each.  Once you are satisfied that you know how the game works, entering the game's one-on-one constructed PVP lobby is completely free.  And here is where my experience went south very very quickly.

My experience makes me suspect that the "unranked" play mode operates on a hidden ranking system.  I faced roughly equal opposition for my first ten or so games, but as I had half a dozen wins under my belt I found that the games were increasingly lopsided against me.  I have slowly clawed to about a dozen wins, and I'm increasingly getting stomped into the curb five or more times in a row before barely winning the occasional match.  

In a one-on-one card game, one of the players is going to lose each and every game.  A perfect match-making system would aspires to pair opponents who have a roughly even chance against each other - which would mean that streaks of wins and losses are going to happen.  For that reason, the way in which you lose the game matters.  Losing because you made a poor choice or because the odds weren't with you or because your opponent built a deck that you could not answer can still be fun.  Losing because the other person has more and better cards than you do - the entire basis of the TCG business model - is not especially fun. 

Right now I am spending an hour at a time losing five or more games in a row because the match-making system is pairing my out of the box basic decks against players with cards that are objectively better than the cards I have.  I have had my entire health pool go from full to zero in a single turn as an opponent somehow strung together a combo in which they played a dozen cards due to draw and cost reduction mechanics.  And, to be clear, because this is a free to play game that I have not bought into, this abuse is the price that I am to pay in exchange for being able to play the game. 

Blizzard wants me to get stomped so I will want to buy more cards.  Failing that, they categorically don't want me to be able to click an option for "other people with basic - read unpaid - decks only" because that not only denies the people who have spent money the opportunity to stomp me, but it also means higher queue times for those players who are actually supporting the product. 

I would gladly pay a one-time fee for this product.  I would consider paying a subscription for this product.  I have zero willingness to pay into a system where I spend money and get a random assortment of cards that probably aren't the cards I wanted.  And as to the free option - on paper you can "win" booster packs every few days - the experience is not worth my time.

Two alternatives worth noting, that will probably be the only way I spend more time on this product:

1. You can supposedly challenge specific friends if you have their Battletags.  This would mean that you could come to an out-of-game handshake agreement to use the basic decks, and, ironically, not pay a dime for the product as a result.
2. The game's other format is the Arena.  Normal TCG's offer "sealed" formats in which you buy new packs of cards for a specific tournament (thus ensuring that the game maker gets paid) and then pay an additional entry fee, in exchange for a comparatively level (random card draws aside) playing field.  This is potentially fun but guaranteed to be costly - the sealed cards you bought are yours to keep, but you're probably never going to assemble a competitive constructed deck with these small random draws. 

The Hearthstone twist is that you do NOT get to keep the cards in your Arena deck, but that the format only costs $2 per draft because the entry fee is all you are paying.  As Azuriel notes, this does mean that a losing streak costs you real money per loss, but at these prices you're going to have to draft, play, and lose very quickly to be racking up more than $1-3 per hour in entry fees.  That's potentially high compared to MMO's (or potentially not if you subscribe to a game where you don't spend 15+ hours per month) but very very low compared to any other TCG on the market. 

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Paid Bypass For Levels

With one click of a button, my old Warden crafting alt in EQ2 gained 48 levels and presumably a variety of gear, perks, and AA's.  I don't even know what I won because I have yet to log on to check.  I made my decision to throw this free upgrade at a crafting alt based on why I do - and do not - play MMO's. 

Indirectly passing on the free 85
Before pushing the win button, I used the "try before you buy" feature to test drive a level 85 Beast Lord.  This expansion class would have been the most likely choice if I were rolling a new character to actually play the game with.  Even on the partially locked down trial status - you start with limited AA's but a full set of high quality gear - I concluded that it was pointless for me to spend the free level 85 token on that character. 

I was killing things so quickly that I could not get a good feel for the class.  More importantly, I actually enjoy playing solo content in EQ2.  If I ever do play a Beast Lord, playing it from level 1 would be the entire point.  Since the free upgrade is a limited time offer (for the next week), there was no reason NOT to use it to grab some random perks for my highest level crafting alt to facilitate future crafting. 

Now my 62 Tailor is suddenly a lot harder to kill for any mobs I encounter during crafting quests, and supposedly he has a free flying mount for his troubles.  I wouldn't have paid the $35 SOE is asking for this service, as there is a non-zero chance that I will never actually benefit directly from having this character at level 85.  Still, I don't have a problem taking the upgrade as a freebie.

The myth of the perfectly-balanced player
There are two real drivers for this feature. 

First, the modern MMO model of vertical progression is completely failing people who play MMO's because they want to play with their friends.  There is no way for games to maintain critical mass for group leveling in a game that's multiple years old using traditional MMO mechanics.  Even in games where there is some sort of down-leveling or "level-free" system it is almost always somehow less rewarding for players to come help their newer brethren.  Thus we have a situation where soloing to the level cap - 80 or more levels in MMO's that have been around for a while - is the frequently only option.  

This would be fine if everyone who played MMO's actually liked all aspects of MMO's, but many people do not - for valid reasons - enjoy soloing.  However, you can't just punt on allowing solo content unless you are willing to write off a significant chunk of the market (not a bad decision in principle, and I tip my cap to the games with the guts to go this way).  And thus the developer's dilemma.  No matter how many times you nerf the content, the player who does not want to be there soloing is still going to see it as a speed bump between them and the group content they want to be doing with their friends.  Meanwhile, you will ruin the content for players like myself who actually want to play it long before you make the grind palatable. 

While it was EQ2's producer who floated the idea of jumping players to max level back in early 2011, it was actually World of Warcraft who implemented it first, with a revised win-back program a year and a half ago.  I supported the plan then and I still support it now.  Developers are not going to change player preferences on whether or not leveling solo is a good thing.  Killing levels outright for everyone (which Keen proposed a year ago) does fix the on-ramp problem but it does not provide an alternative solution to the design problems that levels exist to fix.  Offering instant levels is the most expedient - and, with fees, mutually beneficial - solution that I've seen to date. 

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Advice for New Bloggers - Write what you want

The Newbie Blogger Initiative is back for another year courtesy Roger of Contains Moderate Peril and Doone On of T.R. Red Skies.  I'm never sure what advice to offer a newbie because it depends on who you are and what you are attempting to achieve.  Personally, even five years ago when I generally played one MMO at a time, I felt strongly that I did not want my blog to be tied to a single game - then again, some of the best and most helpful blogs out there are game-specific.  Tobold makes some good points about not blogging under your real name if this is purely a hobby for you, but these go out the window if you are looking to make the jump into gaming journalism or elsewhere.

Thus, I'll offer up one tip.  Write what you want.  Player Versus Developer started five and a half years ago partially so I would have a spot to write about the Wrath beta (having won a key in a contest) but partially because I realized that I was already creating enough content for a blog, I was just doing it in the comments at other peoples' sites.  In some ways, posting that content to a site of my own was not any additional work.  

Keeping a blog running for years will take some dedication, and you need to enjoy it.  Your readers may have come to expect one thing from you, whether it's how often you're going to update, what game you play, or even what opinions you have, but I do not think you can keep a blog going purely on what others want your blog to be.  In fact, as someone who also reads a lot of blogs and listens to a lot of podcasts, I've found you can tell when the person creating the content is starting to get burnt out (often shortly followed by them closing up shop).

To me, making sure that this blog remains a hobby and not a job is what has allowed me to continue.  If you do stay in it for the long haul, your life will change - whether it's your job, your daily routine, or your family - along with what you play and how you think about what you're doing.  My daughter celebrates her first birthday this weekend, which also marks the better part of a year in which I have been posting just once a week to allow time for family and actually playing the games I write about.  Perhaps I don't have the readership I did back when I was updating more frequently, but I can say with confidence that I would not still be writing the blog at all today if I had tried to force myself to stick to the old schedule in changing circumstances.

Whatever your goals are, find a way to fit them within what you want to be doing.  The rest will come as it may.