Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Technically Alpha Of The Storm

I've never heard of a "technical alpha" before an email from Blizzard indicating that I was now part of one for the upcoming MOBA Heroes of the Storm.  My first take was that it was a Phishing scam, as I had not heard of anyone else in this test, but I typed in by hand and sure enough, my account was flagged for what it described as a "beta".  There's probably a definition somewhere that isn't "this is what used to be called a beta, but that term now has so much marketing hype that we have to technically call it an alpha", but no matter.

(Also, despite being technically alpha, there is no NDA - Blizzard continues to show admirable lack of fear of showing their cards with extended public testing.)  

The Game
So far, I'm liking what I'm seeing.  I was never the core MOBA demographic, but for the occasional pop-in PVE against bots I can see little reason why I'd ever use League of Legends for that purpose now that Heroes of the Storm is arriving.  I'm sure the competitive players greatly enjoy the strategy of forcing the other player out of lane to heal or finding a time when it's safe to return to base to spend your accumulated gold on necessary item upgrades.  I'll take Heroes' talent system (pick one of several abilities every few levels) and healing fountains (which the enemy can destroy) any day. 

The engine is smooth, the UI is clean and polished, and the game is full of Blizzard's attention to detail and sense of humor.  In an era where we show players stories rather than telling them, I'd much rather be playing characters I know from over a decade of Blizzard's lore than possibly deep League backstories that never really intrude into the game itself. 

The game starts with a tutorial in which Uther explains quickly to Jim Raynor how he has ended up in a world of cross-franchise battles, and then it's off to the races. 

The Business
A testing bundle of ten heroes for just under $30

The "invite" (there was no key or I would have considered raffling it off, they automatically applied it to my account) is somewhat wasted on me due to how the game's incentives work.  Like Hearthstone and League of Legends, you earn rewards including an alternate currency for unlocking stuff as you play the game.  Thus, there's little to no reason why I'd invest significant time on this test only to see my progress reset when the game goes live.  Likewise, there is a partially functional cash shop up and running for in-game purchases, but these purchases will be "refunded" dollar for dollar in Blizzard credit; there's zero reason I'd take that deal since I might want to spend more or less money if offerings change between now and launch.  

What is in the cash shop will be relatively familiar to League players.  Characters run for $4-10 or some amount of in-game currency.  These are allegedly based in part on the complexity of the character and seemingly with little basis in popularity - Raynor and Malfurion sit in the $4 tier, most characters including Tassadar, Illidan, and Diablo sit at the $7.50 price point, and only a handful, most prominently Kerrigan, occupy the $10 tier.  Cosmetic skins are pricier, generally either $7.50 or, $10 and not available with in-game currency, but are reasonably well done and very clever.  In addition to minor or comedic variations, there are cross-franchise outfits -  Kerrigan as a WoW succubus, or Uther as a Starcraft Terran Medic - and alternate realities such as Arthas as a human and a fallen demonic Tyrael.  Once you own the skin, you can unlock color variants in-game only.  There are also apparently cosmetic mount variants (everyone gets a free basic horse), including a $20 rainbow unicorn, because why not. 
You can take the healbot out of Azeroth....
A promising first look....
It may be technically alpha, but it looks well polished.  League will survive fine due to its massive userbase, but I'd be very worried if I was running any less prominent MOBA when this game hits wider release. 

Monday, June 9, 2014

All In On Wildstar Attunements: Legacy of the Burning Crusade

I have the advantage of a healthy level of distance from Wildstar and its raid attunement system.  I'm not playing the game and wouldn't be raiding if I did, so I can't say if what they're doing is either good or the way it should be.  Based on what I'm reading from Syl and Liore it sounds like an old-school system in which players will have do do all the content multiple times to be allowed in the door for raids.  I think I can see why the studio would want to do this, though there's also a significant risk; if the plan does not pan out, neither the model nor its current target audience will be amenable to changes.

Can Targeting the Top Work?
Reacting to the steep requirements, Syl writes:
What attunements absolutely shouldn’t be is a way to divide your playerbase and essentially make it excruciatingly frustrating to nigh impossible for the more casual crowd, which constitutes the majority of your paying customers, to ever experience endgame or raid content. It makes no sense to create content for your top 1% or even top 5% and that’s a lesson Blizzard learned down the line, to a point where even flex raids have become a reality.
History may argue for the opposite.  The majority of MMO's in the last five years, assuming they managed to launch an endgame at all, have drastically reduced or eliminated both hard requirements (you must complete this attunement to zone in) and soft requirements (you must have X gearscore, but we're resetting the gear curve every patch) to enter compared to days of old.  Excluding the two titles that launched in the last two months (for which the jury is still out), none of these titles have done especially well at retaining their subscription base, and have instead been forced to relaunch with different business models.  Yes, Blizzard continues to release raids, but I don't see the increasing efforts to  lower raid difficulty as a vote of confidence.  Instead, it seems a reaction as more and more people and guilds either refuse to play them in the traditional formats or struggle to field the requisite rosters. 

Business models are not a democracy, so the percentages don't matter.  What matters is whether the content you are creating is retaining your revenue stream or not.  A possible explanation of the trend, which I believe is what Carbine is banking on, is that it may not make sense to invest the time to develop raid content for the less dedicated crowd, because they are leaving in a few months anyway. 

If there was no top 1-5% then you could always price out a cut-rate option that would fit within in the budget, but there's an additional cost.  Making a raid game that looks like what WoW has today makes the game not worth playing for that 1-5%.  Five percent of WoW's over ten million peak would be over half a million subscribers, which would put Wildstar in solid territory by any measure. 

Legacy of the Burning Crusade
Raiders will often swear that WoW's first expansion, the Burning Crusade, was the pinnacle of the genre.  I don't believe this is solely nostalgia, as TBC existed at a unique time in history.  WoW opened the genre up to players who wanted to spend some or all of their time soloing, but at that point they faced little or no competition to retain those dollars.  This left Blizzard free to do what Carbine may be attempting to do with Wildstar - pocket money from the majority, accept the risk that these people will run out of content faster than you can produce it and leave, and spend your effort on the minority who will only stick around with a robust raid game that's not feasible if budgeted solely on a per-capita basis.

That said, it's a different risk today than it was in January 2007.  As other companies finally caught up to Blizzard's lead, WoW faced real competition for solo players dollars for the first time from titles like the newly launched LOTRO and the largely re-launched solo-friendly incarnation of EQ2.  After cramming three full tiers of raids into the first four months of TBC, Blizzard spent much of the remaining time in that expansion, and arguably most of the time since, trying to make the game more accessible.  You don't make that kind of change to a 10 million subscriber cash cow because things are trending in the way you wanted. 

All In for Wildstar may mean All In
Wildstar launches in an era where the risk is that the majority of players will leave in the first 90 days regardless of anything they do.  Posturing to anticipate who will be left when the dust settles - trying to be good at one thing, rather than mediocre at all things that WoW does - could be a better plan than many games have tried.  The problem with catering to the top 1-5%, though, is that you don't have a lot of room to run in if you're not liking your numbers.  When you're that far off the median MMO player, you'll render the endgame completely useless to its existing demographic long before you make it even slightly acceptable to the median. 

(The same is true of the business model; despite being the heaviest users of games and demanding a disproportionate level of effort on their content, raiding players are generally the least tolerant of any model in which they would pay a higher share of the development and operating expenses.  If you add anything that raiders would actually want, they are quick to accuse your title of being "pay to win".  IE, if Wildstar does have a secret plan to go free-to-play in six months after pocketing the launch box prices, they should probably be focusing on other demographics.)

The real test for whether Carbine can win their bet is not whether dedicated raiders continue to pay their $15, but whether they actually willing to back up their desire for this old school system with their own time.  Forcing players to rehash the content endlessly to flag their guildmates is not a side effect of this system, it's the entire point.  Those guild groups will be short a player or two and that will create the rare opportunity for new players to enter the system.  If the Wildstar elite take the position that neither the PUG masses nor lower tier content that no longer offers worthwhile drops are an acceptable use of their time, the system will collapse. 

That's where I'd look - not to declarations that the system is demographically unjust or that games should be allowed to try different things - but to whether raiders are willing to run PUG's.  If the system works, it'll stick around.  If the system never reaches critical mass, both the elite raid community and possibly the entire game could be in a very tough spot. 

Friday, June 6, 2014

Looking Back on Marvel Heroes

I spent $20 and maybe a dozen hours on the launch of Marvel Heroes.  I returned in November and have spent $270 since (including pre-purchase of post upcoming content slightly into next year), playing Marvel Heroes as my primary title for most of the time since December.  The good and bad of the game as it stands today:

Atmosphere, Gameplay
This game is a licensed property - I can't speak to whether you'll like it if you don't like the source material.  If you do like the material, it's in good hands - including a week-long review process at Marvel for stuff being added to the game.  Characters look like they should, almost always sound as they should (some voice acting is better than others, par for the course), and usually play as they should. 

In one example, they could have half-assed a magic user like Dr. Strange by re-coloring existing projectiles, and they instead spent time and effort on elaborate animations - portals with demons, swarms of magical homing daggers, a giant floating eye - to make him look more like the Sorcerer Supreme.  (One catch - heroes are priced largely based on level of development effort, so characters like Dr. Strange, and Ghost Rider who had a ton of work for his flaming motorcycle, end up costing more.)  The team has also taken the time to go re-review the launch-era heroes - one at a time - to bring them up to current standards at zero additional cost to players who already own that character. 

The gameplay is relatively standard action-RPG combat, with lots of dodging out of damage zones and occasional screen-filling explosions of particle effects.  The Marvel feel is here again, including a storyline that romps through a relatively timeless version of Marvel's major villains.  Personally, I enjoy repeating the story on all of the different characters to see how they handle the same content (which I now know very well) differently.  The action setting also includes shorter levels with more frequent opportunities to sign off and resume your progress later compared to Diablo III.  I feel that I can make progress in a 10-minute session or sit down on a rare occasion and power a character through the entire story in a few hours.

The Business
The game's business model has also seen an overhaul.  At launch, the cash store was all over the place, playable heroes were the priciest items, and just about anything could drop in game with no real way to farm what you wanted.  Today, heroes are cheaper across the board, and a new currency based entirely on time /played can be used to unlock any hero in the game.  The flip side, which the developers have been much more reticent to confirm, has been that everything else, from respec potions to costumes, have been drastically slashed on the loot tables. 

The new model makes sense - personally, my playtime drops off when I start running out of characters I want to play, and that costs the developers the chance to sell me other stuff.   I can also see how someone who focused on a single character and didn't care as much about cosmetic stuff is now looking at increased costs because things no longer drop at any reasonable rate.

This is also, as you might gather from my top line numbers, a potentially pricey game.  If you wanted to purchase just the playable heroes and team-ups released from December through May when there isn't a sale on, you're looking at over $90 without paying for any storage or costumes, i.e. $15/month.  Longer term promotions don't really save you much money but you can expect significantly more stuff - including storage and an alternate costume for each new hero as they are released.  I'm actually in a bit of a dead spot in the business model where I get squeezed harder than most.  Very infrequent players get a lot of playtime without paying at all, and players who get in 40+ hours a week walk away with enough splinters to unlock every character in-game for free.  I play just enough to want new characters faster than I can earn them. 

Also, the marketing team has always focused heavily on aggressive promotions, and recent months have seen a major rise in small but desired bonuses (exclusive costumes and team-ups, permanent experience boosts, etc) for very large purchases of $100 or more.  Thus far the extras have been optional, but the quality and frequency of these promotions is increasing.  A game's business model can't be a democracy, but that doesn't make it fun when it's pointed out that there's a lot of stuff they just won't sell to players who spend $300 per year, in order to make a market for players who spend over $1000 per year. 

The game's developers will readily admit that the initial launch had problems - customer service had to manually flagging accounts for access during launch, the game's first client patcher was routinely redownloading 10GB of data until tech support began telling people to go download the game from Steam instead, and there were huge issues with basic functionality like tracking quests across multiple characters and landing only halfway to the cap after a first trek through story mode. 

The good news is that the game has come a long way and seen a lot added.  Patches with various amounts of stuff arrive monthly, and events of one sort or another run on most weekends.  At least one new playable hero, ready or not, will arrive every month.  And there's the other side of the coin - the team is reasonably good at following up on new releases, but the production cycle is very aggressive, with under a week of public testing for most releases, and new paid characters seldom miss their mark.  Anything that isn't a new paid character is likely to take at least twice as long as the developers say it will to release. 

It's hard to say how harsh to be on this topic.  Blizzard fails to follow through on both its preliminary designs and its time-tables; with frequent releases in Marvel Heroes that aren't held to fill an expansion box, it's more noticeable when features were promised for their actual target date and end up slipping by weeks or months.  Sometimes, small but significant issues even get held up because the team decided to tackle something larger - for example, Life Leech cores were deemed to be overpowered so the developers disabled them from dropping in game and said they would be nerfed in a subsequent review.  The review took something like four months, during which the best costume cores in the game no longer dropped in the game. 

The studio is in the midst of re-branding the title "Marvel Heroes 2015" to match the naming convention of annual sports franchises and attempt to earn re-reviews from game reviewing outlets.  Given the hiccups that they experience on almost every patch, they might want to be careful what they wish for - Simcity still owns a 64 Metacritic score and a 2.1 user rating due largely to server issues (and the company's poor handling thereof) from the launch weekend over a year ago. 

Overall, I'm playing the game and spending money on the game.  The mechanic of collecting new heroes (some with cash, some earned in-game) and benchmarking them against familiar content is fun for me.  Familiarity with the IP means that I start each new character with some impression of who they are and what they do, and the drop-in style of gameplay works with my lifestyle.  I feel okay about what I've spent thus far, but I do have some concerns. 

Looking into 2015, the team will be releasing increasingly lower-profile characters, and I could see character designs beginning to blur together as roster sizes increase.  I have concerns about how the number of vertical progression systems they are adding to the game will scale over time.  At some point I won't find what they're offering to be worth what they're asking, and because of how I play the game that will likely mean giving up on the game entirely rather than cutting back (i.e. playing with a very limited flow of new characters will no longer be fun). 

As I said up top, this is the first time in several years that I've spent six straight months almost entirely in a single game.  So far, that counts for something.