Tuesday, March 25, 2014

A Brief Return to Diablo III

A 100% bonus exp weekend was enough to get me back into Diablo III - a title I tried for a few days post launch and ultimately wrote off as a total failure of a purchase.  The good news about buy-to-play is that if you want more of the thing you didn't like, it doesn't cost you a renewed subscription fee.  In my case, I wanted to see the rest of the story I paid for, and I figured there would not be a better occasion to do so. 

I have no idea why this was the lone screenshot I took all weekend, but the bugged "marker location" text is vaguely amusing.
My old character was literally unplayable when I logged in, dying repeatedly to every trash mob I encountered.  I spend most of my time in an ARPG these days, so I was pretty sure the problem couldn't just be that I was suddenly a terrible player.  The issue is that I was level 22 and mid-way through Act II, but wearing gear an average of ten levels below my level and most of it at the lowest non-trash quality the game awarded.  Apparently the game was very stingy with loot back in the day in the misguided attempt to create scarcity for the real money auction house. 

It took surprisingly long to figure out how to backtrack far enough to a point where I would be able to survive.  (For the record, you have to log out and click on the "game properties" on the character select screen if you want to backtrack to a previous act.)  I died a few times to trash early in Act I as well, but then I replaced every single item on my character with higher quality gear within the space of a few fights that I actually survived.  Between that, speccing my Whirlwind Barbarian out like I have Colossus set up in Marvel Heroes, the rest of the game on normal mode difficulty went by pretty quickly.  I completed the story at level 44 with gear that appears from the tooltips to be vaguely level appropriate. 

Over than the overall rate of loot acquisition, it's hard for me to tell how much has changed versus how much I simply never got around to seeing the first time.  (There is an endgame alternate advancement system that was added post-launch, but I'm still not high enough to access this.) 

I will say that I was struck by how freaking depressing the game's setting is.  Maybe I just wasn't old enough to think about the horrors of war fifteen years ago as a student, maybe it's a matter of having a kid myself, or perhaps it's the game's use of voice-over to read lore updates to you as you continue the action.  It just seems like a staggering number of NPC's die - you periodically find and loot a letter from a dead soldier's wife about how their kid is growing up - in an eternal conflict that doesn't seem to have a point or any resolution.  Maybe this lore just worked better when the plot consisted of finding the village of Tristram dead and spending the rest of the time killing everything that moved because they were all demons. 

All that aside, I guess the weekend was a win for Blizzard.  This expansion moves on my watch list from "why would I pay for more of that game I never finished" to "maybe it'll be worth picking up on super sale next Black Friday".  Doesn't mitigate having paid full price for the game, but having written the purchase off as a total loss I guess that makes this a pleasant surprise windfall. 

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Is a MOBA Crash Coming?

Are MOBA's in 2014-2015 heading for the kind of crash we saw in subscription WoW-like MMO's post 2009?  

I ask the question looking at the increasingly crowded slate of major and minor MOBA's of various flavors.  I'll probably play Blizzard's upcoming MOBA when it comes out.  Like WoW and Hearthstone before it, the game does not appear to have many revolutionary ideas, but it has some no-brainer quality of life improvements (e.g. try new champions in a closed practice environment for free) that you'd expect from Blizzard.  I may or may not ever get around to trying Turbine's DC Universe MOBA.  I almost certainly won't get around to trying the half a dozen other MOBA's in various stages of beta. 

All of which gets me thinking of the flood of MMO's that imitated WoW's basic design - support solo play and attempt to retain subscriptions with something for everyone.  Rather than grow the market with further success, the last five years have seen titles based on the WoW formula cannibalize each other.  The resulting drop in revenue has forced recent titles to downsize their staffs and ambitions at best, or close down at worst. 

The golden age of the subscription MMO's in the early 2000's was a virtual frontier in which every title enjoyed its own private captive audience.  Each title had something unique - soloing in WoW, RVR in DAOC, playing music in SWG cantinas, space piracy in EVE - that you could not get elsewhere, and even if you could find an adequate substitute you probably couldn't talk all of your friends into coming along for a change of game.  Thus, each title could count on its reliable subscription revenue to invest into further development of the game. 

We have this belief that choice and competition are good, and that the alternative is the parody video about the proposed Comcast merger.  The downside to an era with more choice is that the LACK of choice is what made the subscription model viable in MMO's and the subscription was what made the development of those MMO's financially possible.  In an era where your new title is competing with half a dozen games with similar budgets that have also had the benefit of years of polish and added content, new titles are getting cut off before they can get off the ground, as people choose to leave. 

Modern MOBA's aren't identical to subscription MMO's - in particular, the business model is much more suited to non-subscription payments than retrofitted monthly fee MMO's ever will manage.  League of Legends probably has the critical mass after five years to continue.  I'm just wondering if we're going to be looking at a bunch of failed MOBA's in a few years. 

Monday, March 17, 2014

Staying Power for Added Rewards

A few weekend events this month offered up rewards that seemed designed to encourage me to play.  Ironically, the side effects of this sugar rush sometimes leave me feeling even less inclined to try the content once the incentives have expired. 
  • Two weekends ago, Marvel Heroes held an event in which certain terminal (think dungeon) bosses dropped four times the normal loot.   This event was actually inspired by a bug a few months back in which Kingpin summoned Electra and Bullseye to assist him as normal, but the game incorrectly considered the two adds as bosses and awarded loot accordingly, leading to much farming of Kingpin that weekend. 

    I typically don't spend much time in terminals, and when I do get a Legendary Quest sending me to one I almost always do the easier green difficulty so I can complete the quest faster.  During the event, I opted for the slightly harder red difficulty hoping for better rewards, did the scheduled bosses, and didn't get anything of note.  I guess this is a challenge that ARPG's face - when you're killing bosses every 10 minutes they can't drop loot that frequently, but having an experience like this one definitely sends the message that I shouldn't waste my time on harder difficulties. 

  • SWTOR offered up double exp last weekend, which made it time to finally finish off my Sith Warrior.  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. 

  • The Marvel Heroes event of the week (started on Thursday and runs through Thursday morning) offered up rainbows used to earn pots of leprechaun gold in honor of St. Patrick's Day.  The items aren't great for power gamers, but they're good for leveling alts, which is most of what I do in game. 

    Rainbows drop anywhere loot drops, and the best loot drop rates in the game are in a challenge mode called X-Defense.  This is the only mandatory group content in Marvel Heroes at the moment - random groups of five are assembled by the group finder, and the mode features infinite waves of increasingly tough foes until the group fails, with better loot for each wave.  The good news is that there was NOT a specific bonus to X-Defense this weekend, so what I saw was what I got.  The bad news is that ironically the rewards were perhaps too good. 

    I dusted off a character I wasn't really enjoying much in story mode and chewed through fifteen levels, gaining unique items (the game's top rarity) for three of my five gear slots and multiple duplicates besides.  People always swear that group content should be more rewarding than solo, and this definitely fit the bill.  And I didn't hate it, so that's good.  However, it's arguably so much better than playing the game the normal way that I've been playing it for the last three months that going back to story mode almost seems like wasting my time.  
I guess it's a hard balance -  how do you shake things up in a way that leads to sustained interest in something the player has not been doing, rather than a one-time blip and disappointment thereafter? 

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Interview on Turbine's MMO's and Future

Syp has pulled off a journalistic coup in an interview with Turbine on the studio's future.  He actually asked the tough questions about whether the studio's large scale layoffs and impending transition of the entire Asheron's Call franchise to maintenance mode is going to affect DDO and LOTRO.  He actually got answers. 

Turbine is notoriously close-held with info - even at the bitter end for the AC IP they still won't discuss player numbers! - but customers have had legitimate questions about what to expect from the studio's other products going forward.  This article is especially unusual because it is a Massively exclusive - usually, when there's news to be had, everyone gets it at once.  Perhaps Syp's interest in following up on the venerable AC franchise was what earned a little more open-ness.

Anyway, well worth a read if you follow the studio's titles, or have any interest in how turning a major MMO over to its community is going to work. 

Monday, March 3, 2014

The Common but Misleading Use of Free

The EU is making rumblings of cracking down on the use of the word free to market games that are in the business of making money.  The effort is aimed primarily at makers of cell phone games marketed for children, which have an unfortunate habit of encouraging kids to run up bills on their unsuspecting parents' stored payment information.  While I'm not thrilled at potentially hapless government intervention, removing the word free from titles that are clearly not intended to be free is a perfectly reasonable effort.   

To be clear, developing games or any other product costs money.  Many people are less than thrilled to discover how those costs are being recouped by companies like Facebook and Google that are in the business of not charging users and then re-selling their personal information.  Sometimes an independent developer will choose to absorb the entire "cost" (primarily their time) of developing a "free" application either because they aren't in it for the money or because they're looking to establish a portfolio for future paid work.  That all aside, I don't share Azuriel's view that it's somehow hard to determine whether or not a product is offered at zero cost to the consumer. 

While this discussion is primarily aimed at phone games, I think some pictures might help illustrate the point that, whether you technically have the ability to download the client and create an account for free, pretty much every title that uses the word free prominently in their marketing is actually not intended to be played at zero cost to the user. 

For LOTRO's splash page, "completely free" is literally the bottom line.  This claim hangs its hat on the concept that you can chain re-roll and delete alts to earn pennies' worth of Turbine points per hour and thus theoretically earn access to $40 expansion packs. 

I haven't gotten out my ruler to measure, but it sure looks like "Play Free Now" is in bigger font than the Star Wars title in SWTOR.  In fairness, you actually can play pretty much the entire game for free, subject to some time-exclusivity for paid mini-expansions and some significant and annoying restrictions that can only be lifted by subscribing. 

Wizard 101 has managed to reserve the largest text for their game's title, though FREE is the second word on the page and the "Play for free" button has the most prominent location (followed by two more uses of "free" in bullet points and sentence explanation of the product.  This title is marketed to kids, and its use of free is by far the biggest stretch because you can't even access the entire first world in the game without paying.  Having your kid's character available as a hostage before you discover that this "free" game costs money is literally the point of the business model.

A world without free 
One last picture for you, from the world's biggest MOBA:
Funny how there isn't the word Free anywhere on that page - there's a link for "play now" and another link for "download the game", neither of which discuss cost.  League is commonly called a "free to play" game, and it can be played as such, but most people would agree this title is not set up to be played at zero cost to the user.  Instead, it's a solid title that stands on its own merits and pricing without the need to abuse the word free. 

I get where Azuriel is coming from when he points out that companies will still bait and switch as best they can, even if forbidden to use the word Free.  I just don't accept the lack of a complete and permanent solution to the marketing problem as a reason why a small change that makes the advertising less misleading is a bad idea.  From the other side of the coin, we will probably still see players complaining that things in game cost money even if we did remove the intentionally misleading word free from the lexicon.  I still see the removal of a promise that no one ever intended to keep as a positive change.