If NCSoft is going to kill Wildstar, they should do it now

Pretty terrible news for Wildstar fans on the bad news dumping ground day of Friday, with massive layoffs and the cancellation of the Chinese release. Everyone who has ever lost a job knows how much it sucks, and I hope everyone can bounce back quickly from it.

The worst news was probably the unconfirmed part. Although management gave the usual PR talk about being “committed to the game”, the scuttlebutt is that the game’s fate is sealed and sunset will happen in a couple months.

If we assume that’s true…

If You’re Killing It, Do It Now, FFS!

There is absolutely no reason to string people along if things are already decided. Don’t give your fans the PR crap. Don’t give your employees the PR crap. Just be honest about it.

I mean, what does anyone gain by deception at this point except a few dollars? The layoffs are so drastic, and include so many key, senior, public facing people, that major damage has been done to Wildstar’s ability to recruit and hold players. The die hards will stick around no matter what, but someone looking for a new MMO to try is not all that likely to try the one that looks like it’s about to get shut down. At best, Carbine and NCSoft are going to pull in a few bucks from people sticking it out and hoping things work out, or those who won’t leave until the lights go out (and even Pathfinder Online has a few of those, who are literally keeping the lights on).

It sucks the most for people who are still there though, because of the uncertainty. Should they look for new jobs? If they don’t, will they be gone in 3 months anyway? If they bail out now, are they abandoning the people still there? There’s no way to win in this situation, for staff. If the end date is put out into the open, they know for sure and can start the process of moving on.

As for fans? Well, they need time to mourn. Literally. If you look at the reactions, that’s how the fans feel.

There’s the people in denial, the people who are angry , the people who want to see the game sold/spun off, and so on. The uncertainty is bad for them too.

NCSoft <Slayer of MMOs>

There’s also the issue of NCSoft’s reputation, which is already not great because of how many games they’ve killed off. Now, except for City of Heroes, I tend to find that reputation unfair. In this case, especially, people are blaming NCSoft for a rumored shutdown as if they’re killing their baby without giving it a chance. They’re upset, and I get that, so I’m not trying to pick on them.

Rationally? NCSoft funded Wildstar in the first place. NCSoft kept paying the bills when the launch didn’t go well and revenue sank, severely. They kept paying during the F2P transition, which led to a bump (though apparently not a large enough one).

Here’s the thing. Wildstar came out in 2014. AFAIK, it’s never turned a profit. Sales were down to numbers that make it 1% of NCSoft’s business. If the F2P transition also failed to turn things around, exactly what is NCSoft at fault for, here?

NCSoft is a publicly traded corporation. It’s a business. It exists to make a profit. Indeed, profit (positive cash flow, to be more specific) is a requirement if you want to do things like pay employees on a continuing basis. At some point, it doesn’t make sense for NCSoft to keep funding a game that can’t make money, as that’s just taking money away from other games that can, or potentially could, if they fund a new development.

Is that cold? Yep. It’s business. If the market shows it doesn’t want something, someone has to justify to shareholders why it makes sense to keep dumping money into it.

All that said… stringing people along on the future is also bad for NCSoft’s reputation. If they intend to keep supporting it, they need to come out with a credible plan for how they intend to do that. Anything else won’t work, and just furthers the impression that they’re trying to pull some more money out of people by stringing them along on the future before dropping the axe.

They already have the somewhat unfair reputation as a remorseless MMO killing machine, but they really don’t need to add to it by this kind of shady practice.

Money Matters

In the end, money matters. Profit matters. A lot of upset fans have been preaching things like this:

And the same guy who, on a lifestream, said that the reason you make games is to make money. Apparently forgot that actual developers, unlike corporate henchmen, often also make games cause they are passionate about games and play games.


The worst is, his position is secure. He gets to keep his job. Passionate developers get fired. Olivar is right. This industry is sick. Then again people play right into their hands by supporting exploitative ftp models and dismissing sub models, the later which actually focusses on selling a game, instead of a manipulative cash shop.

Once again, not picking on anyone, as people are hurting. That said… no. To paraphrase Quark: “Passion and an empty sack is worth the sack.” (Also, The Oatmeal on Exposure.)

Data center owners and network uplink providers don’t take passion as currency. Landlords don’t take it either. Grocery stores don’t take it. It takes money to keep things going. That’s how business works. If Wildstar can’t make money, how does it stick around? “Passionate developers” get laid off because there’s no money to pay them, and expecting them to work for free because passion is exploitative and ridiculous.

Spinning it off to another studio (as some have suggested) doesn’t solve the problem. Who pays the bills for development and maintenance, if NCSoft isn’t doing it? What the game would actually need is a new publisher, and given the western MMO market landscape, who is going to do that for a game that didn’t find a big enough audience in a year and a half? How many MMOs have come back from this type of thing, aside from FFXIV? Any? I can’t see very many publishers being interested in picking up the bills, and who can blame them?

If you love Wildstar? You have my sympathies. Play it like there’s no tomorrow, because there probably won’t be. Also, here’s art I had made back when I was playing, because Engineer robots are adorable.

A commission I had done of Adith and Rhiss, my (and Rhiss') characters in Wildstar
A commission I had done of Adith and Rhiss, my (and Rhiss’) characters in Wildstar

False Choices Are Worse Than No Choices

Sometimes, listening to players is bad. Players will constantly say that they value choice. They like choices. They want more choices. This mentality drives me nuts, because…

Lots Of Choices Are False

I’m playing in a D&D 3.5 campaign right now, and we just hit level 2. The normal rules for HP work like this: each class has a die representing it’s HP (called a Hit Dice). At level up, you roll that, and gain that much HP. Because this sucks horrifically for unlucky people and can make characters unplayable, a very popular house rule (and the actual rule in organized play like Pathfinder Society) is to use a fixed number like a percentage. A popular number in my circle of friends is 75%, because we don’t like super lethal games.

When I was DM, I just used 75%, period. In the game I’m in, the DM is giving us a choice of rolling (with reroll on a 1) or 75%. Everyone loves choice, right?

It's a trap!
Admiral Ackbar knows what I’m going to say.

I did a bit of math, and you’re 98% likely to do better with 75% than you are with rolling. For a Cleric, you’re 52% likely to wind up with at least 19 HP more with 75% than you are with rolling. There is a choice here, but it isn’t what it seems. The choice is actually between “do you want to have lots of HP” and “not that”. It’s a choice between doing the correct thing and the wrong thing. The choice being offered is a trap that will lure in players who don’t know better. Nobody who does know better will make that choice.

This is the kind of choice that is really a false choice and shouldn’t exist at all. Offering up bad choices in the name of “more choice” makes no sense. If I offer you a cheeseburger or a turd sandwich for dinner, do you really feel better that I didn’t just go ahead and only offer cheeseburgers?

Talent Trees Are So Guilty

Big, complex talent trees are another thing players like. They’re another thing that tends to suck in a lot of games. If you played earlier versions of WoW, you’d remember the large trees with lots of talents and points to spend. You could come up with all kinds of builds, and in the easy solo game they’d all work fine. Trouble with that? Sooner or later, the easy solo game ends.

Once you hit the difficult content, most of those build combinations suck. There’s talents that are required to play effectively, and those aren’t really a choice at all. It was pretty common to see builds that spent 47/51 points on mandatory things, and then gave you 4 points to spend on whatever you wanted because they didn’t matter. The actual choice there? 4 out of 51 points. The other ones are only a choice between doing the best you can, or doing less than the best you can and forcing the rest of your group to carry you.

Rift was also notorious for this. It featured an extensive talent system, with tons of build options. Again, most of them sucked. Only the system was so complicated in Rift that doing the right thing was much harder, and it was really easy to make a build that sucked. I literally doubled my DPS in five minutes by changing builds to one I found online. That’s a 100% effectiveness boost in game due to spending under 5 minutes on Google.

Does that seem right, to you? Who makes the choice *not* to do that if they know better? Why would a game developer want me to get better at the game by copying what I see in Google instead of by playing the game?

The whole thing against “cookie cutter” builds is a misguided reaction to this very problem. Players love choice, but players also hate it when someone who doesn’t want to deal with all that choice can get an optimized build really easily. But that isn’t the fault of anyone except the people demanding more choice, because lots of people just want to play the game effectively without dealing with trying to optimize 50 talent points. There’s even more players who don’t have the game knowledge or math skills to have any chance of coming up with a good build on their own. For those players, the cookie cutter builds are actively helping the developers by giving those players the means to actually function in the game halfway effectively. Those players would likely just quit otherwise after finding the game frustrating.

Players also hate it when there are optimal builds at all, with the idea that everything should be equal. That’s an ideal that almost never happens in reality because the more options you have, the more difficult it is to make them all line up equally.  Against a given raid boss, one option will be better than the others. If the boss difficulty is high enough that being optimized matters, one or two builds will fit it. That’s just the nature of the beast.

Give Me Fewer Choices, But Make Them Good

Sid Meier said that “a good game is a series of interesting choices”. He was right. I wish more developers would heed his lesson. Many of the choices we’re given are not interesting. They’re a choice between a right and wrong answer, where the only people making the wrong choice either don’t know it’s the wrong choice, or don’t care if they’re sabotaging themselves or their team. This is why simplified talent trees (like what WoW did) are often the right way to go no matter how players react online. When most of the choices are just cruft and not really an interesting choice, you’re better off cutting them out entirely and only leaving the real choices. It’s easier to develop, easier to balance, and easier to understand for the players.

If the players don’t know what’s good for them? That’s fine. It’s the developers getting paid to make the game, and their livelihood on the line with it. They need to know better.

I Love This Game… Why Am I Not Playing It?

My gaming for the last month and a half is a tale of pre and post vacation (with vacation itself being limited to only Clash of Clans on my iPad). The main victim has been FFXIV. But… why?

Pre-Vacation: All FFXIV

Before I left on vacation, I was playing tons of FFXIV. I was questing out in the expansion areas on Black Mage, working on a Paladin, gearing up to start levelling my White Mage, and so on. Everything was great. I was having fun and was accomplishing what I wanted. No complaints at all.

Post-Vacation: All Diablo 3, no FFXIV

Since I got back, I’ve logged into FFXIV twice. That’s twice, in over three weeks. What happened?

Well, season 4 started in Diablo with a new set and possible build i wanted to try. So I did that a lot. But even when I wasn’t doing that, I still didn’t play FFXIV. Like last night, I finished up in Diablo and instead of playing FFXIV, I went to do the dishes.

Yes, the dishes. Now, the dishes did need doing, but it was prime game time for me and I chose to do the dishes instead. After the dishes, we watched some Sailor Moon Crystal instead of playing FFXIV.

I Have No Idea Why

The kicker is that I don’t really understand what happened. FFXIV didn’t suddenly start to suck in those two weeks. I still really like it. I still on a rational level want to play it. Somehow, that doesn’t translate into actually playing it when I sit down at game time. It’s like while I was on vacation, something just switched into a mode where there’s nothing left I can get out of the game, which is usually a death sentence for me playing it.

That happens with games that feature lots of grinding, like Disgaea. I like the Disgaea series, during the story part. Inevitably the post game gets to a point where you unlock the grinding map in Cave of Ordeals (or something similar depending on the game), and run it ten thousand times to get your characters up to stupid high levels. That part? Once I unlock the ability to do it… I’m done. Actually doing the grinding is repulsive to me, because there’s no challenge. There’s nothing new to learn, no skill to master, no thought required. It’s mindless repetition, which as I’ve mentioned before (in why I don’t get the appeal of Marvel Heroes) is the kind of thing that my day job exists to automate out of existence. It’s also why I’m reaching the end of my Diablo 3 time for this season, as I’ve reached that point where it’s now run Tormet 8-10 repetitively to get better versions of gear, to make the numbers bigger. The fun part is done, and so I’m largely done too.

But that doesn’t apply to FFXIV. I was nowhere near the end game, let alone being grinded out on it. I have lots of story left, and I find the story interesting. I’m seriously puzzled by what happened to my desire to play it.

Pathfinder Online Never Had A Chance

Between my vacation and Diablo III’s 2.3 patch invigorating the game, I’ve lost my momentum in FFXIV. I want to login… then I don’t because something more interesting comes up. Hopefully I can turn that around soon, because I want to get back into it. But damn, 2.3 is an amazing patch from an amazing expansion. Considering where Diablo III was originally, Reaper of Souls might be the single greatest expansion ever made. It completely turned the game around.

Pathfinder Online Layoffs and Possible Shutdown

The news today is Pathfinder Online’s layoffs. First of all, my condolences to everyone who lost their job. That’s terrible and I wish it on nobody (except Stephen Harper, but he’s got a MP pension for life so he’ll be fine).  Most of the dev team is gone, with just the leads remaining to try and get the next two patches out. No new features are in development unless they can get more funding, which means dealing with a publisher and likely selling the company to said publisher. The server is still up for this month, due to subscription money, but that’s the only reason the lights are still on.

If it looks grim, that’s because it is. The MMO market is extremely tough right now. The game appears to be nowhere near finished. It doesn’t have a ton of buzz, or a top tier IP to lean on (Pathfinder is a great pen & paper RPG, but it doesn’t bring mainstream eyeballs). It’s a sandboxy PvP game, which the market is flooded with right now, and also which doesn’t draw mainstream eyeballs. Not a lot of publishers are big on getting into the market right now.

It’s going to be tough to pull out of this and put a game out.

But Really, It’s Not Pathfinder…

Pathfinder Online’s biggest problem, though, is that it bears little resemblance to Pathfinder. I could never understand what they were going for in using that IP. Looking at their webpage, lets take a look at the bullet point feature list:

  • A Fantasy Sandbox

Well, yes. This fits. Pathfinder (and it’s direct ancestor D&D 3.5) are definitely fantasy sandboxes. Of course, the tabletop version only really has the limits imposed by the Dungeon Master, and an MMO can’t possibly hope to be that good of a sandbox, but this makes sense. I would have loved to see a smaller scale party game with a DM role, though. (Kind of like what Shadow Realms was pitched as.) That said, this is in theme with Pathfinder.

  • Open World PvP

… Well, okay. PvP does exist in Pathfinder. It’s hardly the focus, though. Virtually all published campaign material, most of what happens in Pathfinder Society, and the vast majority of custom campaigns aren’t based on PvP. The core game is built around a group working together at least on some level. Players do sabotage each other and are often trying to further their own ends, but games that go into outright open PvP rarely last very long because the game just doesn’t work that way. Once I kill your character, you probably need a new one since I’m not going to pay to resurrect you. The new one has no reason to hate my character unless you’re metagaming.

In fact, I might just animate your corpse and then stick you in a portable hole to make it virtually impossible for anyone else to resurrect you. Standard MMO open world PvP doesn’t capture what actually goes on when real PvP happens in Pathfinder, it’s a totally different animal. Death in a tabletop game often has major consequences, and can easily require a new character be created if it’s a PvP death (PvE deaths are different, you are more likely to have a party that wants to resurrect you if you died as part of the team). In a MMO? Often times death is largely meaningless, and even if it does mean something, having it mean “you have to make a new character” will chase off your players real fast.

  • A Player Driven Economy

Wait, what? The “economy” in Pathfinder is largely inherited from D&D, and it makes very little sense as a true simulation. Once again, there is next to no published material in which players are playing farmers. I actually did run a campaign where players ran an item shop, but they also went out adventuring to get inventory for it (profit margins are excellent when you don’t pay anything to create stuff!)

Gathering isn’t a thing in Pathfinder. When you want to make stuff, you use gold to buy the materials. For some of the crafting feats (like scroll making), gathering would be basically impossible even if you wanted to do it, as you’d actually need a supply chain and production workers to create the materials.  Then, there’s this:

With the exception of some beginner gear and some consumables and vanity items from the cash shop, every item in the game will be crafted by player characters.

Have these guys played Pathfinder? This very rarely happens. Crafting feats are expensive and time consuming. High level items are very rarely made by players, because a Greater Rod of Metamagic Quicken would take 170 days of game time to craft. You know of many campaigns that expect their adventurers to have 170 days of downtime? It’s not the common scenario for players to craft much of anything, let alone high end items, let alone all of them. In fact, it runs counter to the system design: encounters are designed with certain amounts of loot, including items. There’s a whole section about it in the Pathfinder rules (in D&D 3.5, a significant part of the Dungeon Master’s Guide is on how to do this, as well). You’re going to find or buy the majority of your items, and players are not expected to be both mighty heroes and top tier blacksmiths. You can do it, but it’s so cumbersome that it’s rarely done.

The economy that exists in Pathfinder is there to work for the game. That is, outfitting adventurers is a significant part of the world economy, and lots of NPCs make a living doing it. The idea that players should actually be doing this instead is so far afield form the table top game that I have no idea where it’s coming from. This is someone wanting to make an open world sandbox MMO rather than a Pathfinder game.

The core problem here? This is not Pathfinder. This is an open world PvP sandbox MMO that happens to have the Pathfinder name. It’s not going to attract many people interested in Pathfinder, because the game is so far afield of what Pathfinder is about. It also won’t attract many other people based on the name, because Pathfinder as a brand doesn’t have tons of appeal outside of it’s playerbase. This project was in deep trouble right from the outset, as a result.

Plus, the Finances Were Crazy

As Moonrise just taught us, maybe trying to fund a game development project by taking a F2P game and selling early access for $15 isn’t an awesome idea. But… Pathfinder Online is even worse. This is a subscription MMO… in what amounts to early access.

That is not a typo. They were charging a subscription for a game that is nowhere near done. Is it any wonder it didn’t get much traction? This quote from the address says it all:

Q: Any thoughts about lowering the monthly price?

A: Every time we have lowered the price on Pathfinder Online in the past nine months, we have kept the same number of folks playing the game but brought in less money.  At a time when we are entirely reliant on the revenue from subscriptions to keep the game live on the server and employ our core team, decreasing the monthly price is not an option.

Lowering the sub price didn’t change the numbers. That says a lot, to me. If you followed the development of this, they tried to drum up interest, but the subscription (and the buying the game price they also had until July) were huge barriers. The pitch they were trying to sell to people was to buy the game, pay a subscription, and play it in a pre-release state? In a world full of F2P games and large budget, highly polished subscription games, why did anybody think that sales pitch was going to work? It didn’t even have a trial version until June.

Also, this:

We have always known that we would need a certain amount of money to make Pathfinder Online a reality.  Some delays in getting the game to market coupled with some anticipated funding falling through have left us about 75% short of the money we need to finish the game and bring it to Open Enrollment.

In more straightforward terms, they started the game without nearly enough money to finish it. Attempts to find the money didn’t work out, so they are 75% short of getting to “open enrollment”, which in their FAQ states that they think it’s ready for an actual release.

It Never Had A Chance

Launching MMOs in todays market is hard. ESO, Wildstar, the Secret World, and many other games have learned that the hard way. Pathfinder Online caters to only a part of the market (the PvP sandbox part), and that part has a ton of other games being made for it right now. It had extremely high barriers to entry that kept people from being interested. It has an IP that really doesn’t fit the game they are making and doesn’t really help bring people in.

Line all that up at the same time, and I don’t see how this game ever had a real chance at success. It’s too bad… but Pathfinder is at it’s best when you’re at a table (real or virtual) with friends, and a Dungeon Master who can create a more interactive sandbox than any MMO could ever hope to.

That was my favorite thing about being a DM: I create this wonderful intricate sandbox… then let the players loose in it to see what happens. Half the time I had no idea what they were going to do and had to make stuff up on the fly. It’s the wonderful chaos of shared storytelling.


Pet Based Healing Terrifies Me

One of my goals for FFXIV was to get Arcanist to 30, which gives me all the Disciples of Magic classes >= 30. That means I can ditch all the sub-30 DoM gear from my bags, which frees up all kinds of space. I just did that yesterday. I then went ahead and unlocked Summoner and Scholar, because why not?

Summoner I understand. It’s a pet/DoT DPS class. Scholar? Scholar terrifies me.


Scholar. That pet fairy? More healing spells than I have.
Scholar. That pet fairy? More healing spells than I have.

Scholar is a pet based healer. That is, the two pets you can summon now become faeries, and they have healing/support abilities. In fact, at level 30, my healing fairy has more healing power than I do. I only have two healing spells: a single target heal, and a single target heal that puts up a shield. My pet has more abilities. I’m sure this will flesh out later, but it sent me into a fit of terror.

Healing, to me, is all about triage and decision making. I only have so much MP and can only output so much healing at once. Figuring out where and how to direct it is the heart of what you’re doing. I really don’t trust a pet AI enough to offload some of that to it, nor do I want the extra work of babysitting a pet (both in terms of healing targets and in positioning to avoid bad things). There’s more than enough going on already without that extra work.

Fear And Confusion

As anybody in free company chat last night can attest, I didn’t know how to react to this. I started asking all kinds of questions. The idea of actually trying to use this to heal terrified me, especially when I have the warm, fuzzy blanket of White Mage to fall back to. That’s a healing class I understand. The idea of a pet based healing class is so far out of my comfort zone that I recoiled in abject fear from it.

Fairy healing spell bar
Fairy healing spell bar
Scholar healing level 30 spell bar
Scholar healing level 30 spell bar

Is that fear justified? Probably not. I’ve been healed by lots of Scholars (and their pets) in my time as a Black Mage, and aside from noticing some mechanical differences, they always got the job done. But, understanding that at the rational level doesn’t make the fear go away. It’s still there today, when I think “maybe I should try that Scholar”, my immediate reaction is “maybe I should start leveling a tank instead”.

I understand the root of where this is coming from. I really cut my teeth at MMO healing in WoW, doing progression raiding. For quite a while I was a raid guild’s healing leader. I had a huge toolbox and all the freedom and control to deploy it however I wanted. Thus, success and failure (or for the group, life and death) was on me. Losing some of that control of the outcome to a pet AI sets off all kinds of negative reactions.


This really comes down to control, which is why pet classes in other contexts don’t bother me. I’ve often summoned a Unicorn in D&D and used it as a healing pet, but due to how D&D works, I’m still functionally in control of it. DPS pets are okay, because they don’t need the same kind of babysitting to do damage (target changes are less frequent and it’s less likely to kill someone if I let the AI handle it).

Taking healing control away from me and giving it to a pet just… ugh, no. I can’t even form a coherent thought because of how much it rubs me the wrong way.

Maybe one day I’ll work up the ability to overcome this and give the class a fair try. For now though…

White Mage Robes are like a warm fuzzy blanket
White Mage Robes are like a warm fuzzy blanket.

Blizzard Didn’t Cave On Flying Because Of “Forum Whining”

On Heavensward: I am not prepared.

I did get the ARR 2.0 main story completed, with help from the wonderful folks in Greysky Armada. But now there’s all the other ones, along with the new things to do that pop open when you finish 2.0, and gearing, and my White Mage to also play around with… oh, and not nearly enough time. So, I will be lagging behind when Heavensward hits.

Fortunately, I know lots of other people who are too. I’ll be in esteemed company at least. 🙂

Flying And “Vocal Minority Of Forum Whiners”

Blizzard totally reversed course on that no flying thing in just two weeks. That is not shocking. I’m not going to argue if flying is good or bad, because that’s a whole other post. The question here is – why? They made a big production out of the announcement for no flying, and the reasons for it. This is a rather major capitulation, and on the surface it looks like it’s because of the backlash of complaining it caused. I’ve seen no lack of comments on sites like Massively Overpowered to that effect. In particular, that it’s just the vocal minority who complained a lot on the forums that somehow forced Blizzard to backtrack, even though people like it in this MMO Champion poll.

There are a number of problems with that, starting with the obvious invalidity of that poll. It suffers from massive selection bias and is thus statistically useless when looking at the WoW market as a whole. But more importantly…

WoW Populations Over Time
WoW Populations Over Time – Arenajunkies

There’s a trend here since Cataclysm: Expansions bump the population, followed by a gradual decline. The problem is that in Warlords of Draenor, that population decline fell off a cliff. Even WoW doesn’t loose 3 million people in 3 months without senior management starting to ask questions. Clearly, a lot of people were already not happy this expansion.

No flying was far from the only cause of that. But all the complaining that exploded? No flying was the spark that put it into the open.

Blizzard Listens To Many Things

Here’s the thing – Blizzard’s forums suck. Blizzard knows that. EVERYTHING they do is unpopular there, and ever since vanilla people have been claiming that doing one thing or another will be the death of WoW. Blizzard knows that. People on the forums complaining does not make them alter major development decisions, because people always complain about development decisions there.

As a result, Blizzard needs other ways to decide what the players think. They have quite a few; including random surveys (that I’ve gotten), other social media, metrics of what people are doing in game, but perhaps most crucially: the cancellation survey.

One version of WoW's cancellation survey
One version of WoW’s cancellation survey

If you’ve never cancelled WoW before, you may not have seen this. When you do, they ask you why you’re leaving. This is some of the most useful feedback they can get, as it tells them a lot about what drives people out of the game. There’s been quite a few versions of this over the years, but the last option is the one that’s relevant here, and it’s always existed. You can type in a reason. (This seems like it should be something every MMO does, but you’d be surprised. Wildstar didn’t seem to give a damn why I quit. That makes it harder to know what to fix to get me back, and you’d think they would want to know that.)

Back when Real ID was going to be forced on everyone, Blizzard pitched it as a positive. The forums reacted negatively (shocker!). More importantly: Blizzard’s phone lines were totally unreachable for days as they were flooded with people calling to cancel. The cancellation page got a lot of work. This wasn’t just forum anger. It was people speaking with a force far more powerful than words: their wallets.

Blizzard caved, real fast.


Wallets Speak Louder Than Forum Posts

Given how fast the turnaround was on flying, that’s almost certainly what happened here. This expansion has already suffered a major financial hit with 3 million subs lost in record time. There’s nothing to reverse that on the horizon, and although it’ll certainly slow down, the trend is not going to reverse until another expansion. Then they announced that no flying would be permanent, and things blew up. How many more people quit in response, and gave no flying as the reason? We have no way of knowing, but I strongly suspect that number is significant.

You don’t turn around on something you made such a big deal out of just because the forums are complaining. You do when it’s suddenly tanking your quarterly numbers and the CEO is asking questions about what the hell you’re doing to pull millions off the bottom line.

One person remarked on this that “the complainers put a gun to Blizzard’s head.” That’s wrong. They pulled their wallets out of Blizzard’s reach, which in a free market economy is far more powerful. It’s not complainers being mean, it’s customers using their purchasing power to make clear that the company is no longer delivering a product they want, and that they can go elsewhere with their entertainment dollar.

That is how a free market economy is designed to work. It’s why the saying “the customer is always right” exists (even though that saying is often wrong). It doesn’t matter how big Blizzard is – if enough of their customers speak with their wallets, Blizzard will take notice. That’s business, working as intended.

“What Server Are You On?” Is A Question That Needs To Go Away

As my friends have gradually learned that I play FFXIV, the ones that also play have wanted to play with me. And that’s great! The whole point of a MMORPG as a genre is that you can play with loads of other people. Then we try to do it, and the same conversation plays out almost every time:

Them: “What server are you on?”

Me: “Cactaur.”

Them: “Oh. I’m on <someServer>.”

Me: “Drat. Well, maybe we’ll meet up some day.”

Now, I have a great Free Company and a lot of people I know on Cactaur, so I’m not unhappy with where I set up. But in this day and age, there is no reason for this conversation to have to exist anymore.

Individual Servers Are Outdated

Fundamentally, the problem is with the infrastructure. In the old days, games tried to have big worlds and few (or no) instances. In order to scale that up, you spun up another copy of the world and people could go there instead. That wasn’t a great model 20 years ago, but it was practical given the technology at the time. But it has numerous problems, the primary one being that you split your player base up on all those servers and they can’t really interact with each other.

It also scales badly. Consider a common MMO launch, where you have tons of players trying the game out and need lots of servers. A few months later, many of those players are gone, and you need fewer servers. You can’t just shut down the ones you don’t need anymore, as players are on them, even though some of them may not have enough population to make the game actually play well when it comes to group content. As a result, you now have cumbersome and difficult server merges to do.

If the population grows, servers get overloaded. You can spin up new ones, but people will want to play on the busy ones, so to stop that overload you have to close new character creation there. This happens in FFXIV a fair bit, and it can stop someone from recruiting a new person to the game. Do you want to join a game to play with me if you can’t get onto my server?

This was the best we could do 20 years ago.

Doing It Better

Today? There’s no particular reason for those limitations. Games are split up into smaller chunks, each of which can run on a piece of hardware in a data center. Instancing is plentiful. Some games have the ability to spin up multiple instances of a given area even on the same server, to control population. SWTOR did that last one – if Coruscant got too busy, Coruscant 2 would come into existence automatically to keep things flowing. Part of the reason that’s necessary is that the cost of communicating what players are doing to other nearby players increases exponentially as you add more players.


  • If I move and there’s one other player around, the game has to tell one player. If the other player moves, it still has to tell one player.
  • If there’s five players and all five move, the game has to notify 20 people (four players per move, five moves).
  • If there’s 10 players and they all move, now it’s up to 90.
  • If there’s 50 players and they all move, now it’s up to 2450.
  • If there’s 100 players and they all move, now it’s up to 9900. That’s 10x the players and 1000x the work.

This gets unsustainable at very high numbers of people in a single area, but when players are spread out you can handle a lot of them. Thus if they get too concentrated in one area, adding another virtual area and splitting the players between the two will massively reduce load AND allow that load to be spread across two physical resources.

The net result is that if a game is designed with it in mind from the outset, a lot of scaling can be done by spawning copies of instanced areas on a server, allowing each “server” (which is actually a collection of physical and virtual servers) to handle far more players. If the population goes up, more hardware can be added to spin up new instances relatively easily. If the population goes down, resources can be taken away without having to shut the server down and merge it away.

Yes, I am aware that everything I’m saying is a simplification on the actual infrastructure.  🙂

End The Frustration

Games that weren’t designed this way because it wasn’t practical back when they were made are in a tougher spot. Blizzard has tried to get around it in WoW with things like cross server dungeons and chat. But for new games, they shouldn’t be using the same old tired model given all the problems that come with it.

I don’t know if Square is ever planning on doing anything about it in FFXIV given the cost and effort required, but it’s a pretty huge source of frustration when I have to choose which friends I want to be allowed to play with when choosing a server. It’s a serious weakness in an otherwise great game.

Wildstar is definitely changing business models – for the better

I decided to go into FFXIV on my own, and thus far I’m very happy with that decision. It’s a great game as you get going in it, although one that doesn’t leave the strongest first impression. A lot of stuff unlocks as you get going and the game expands massively. It also has a certain ‘something’, I think it’s the longer global cooldown and generally slower feeling pace, but it’s relaxing and fun to play rather than stressful and exhausting. It’s a welcome change of pace.

Wildstar Is Definitely Switching Business Models

Things got off to a fast start this morning with the news that Wildstar’s boxed copies are being pulled off the shelves in Australia, exactly like what ESO did before it switched business models. Of course, that’s a rumor and doesn’t necessarily mean anything… right up until Wildstar unveiled the “mystery box promotion” the same day.

The mystery box promo lets you get special goodies for buying a boxed copy of the game. Only a boxed copy. Digital copies are excluded. Existing copies are excluded. This is a transparent attempt to earn some revenue by clearing physical inventory with randomized stuff for players who plunk down cash. The best reason to do that is right before you’re no longer going to have to plunk down cash, at which point that inventory becomes worthless. That is the only reason to make this physical boxes only and exclude digital sales.

On top of that, the Australia news is interesting. ESO did it a few weeks before their switch. What’s in a few weeks for Wildstar? NCSoft’s quarterly financials, where revenue data for Wildstar will be released.

NCSoft revenue graph
NCSoft revenue graph. Notice the Wildstar line is heading for zero with alarming speed. Thanks to MMORPG.com for the image.

Speaking of NCSoft’s quarterly financials, here’s a lovely graph from their last set. The Wildstar line is disastrously heading in the wrong direction.  This is simply not a trend that can be maintained for much longer, especially with NCSoft’s existing problem of dealing with a hostile major shareholder and potential takeover threat in Nexon. They simply can’t afford to keep throwing money at Wildstar endlessly in the hope that the audience for it suddenly turns around on its own.

Add it all up. The timing of these moves mean that in a few weeks when the new financials come out, they’ll be in a position to announce a business model change along with the new financial data. That will allow management to say that it’s trying to save the game, rather than simply letting it bleed to death.

That’s not an official announcement, but it’s only a matter of time before that announcement comes out.

It’s a Good Thing

The simple truth of the matter is that the subscription model for Wildstar didn’t work. It didn’t gain traction or an audience large enough to sustain an AAA game in todays market. There’s no shame in that, a LOT of games have failed to do it. How many subscription AAA MMO games have launched successfully in the last five years? It’s not a long list. The pool of people willing to pay a subscription and willing to leave from another game is limited, and competition is extremely fierce.

If you want Wildstar to survive, this is a good thing. On it’s current course as a subscription game with a small and quite possibly still declining playerbase, it’s only going to survive for so long as NCSoft keeps willing to eat losses. Once that patience ends, it’s dead. Growing out of it isn’t really realistic – Wildstar’s visibility on things like social media is low due to the lack of players. There simply aren’t enough enthusiastic players, bloggers, Youtubers, and so on to get the word out about all the new things they’re doing in patches.

A business model change gives Wildstar a chance to get back into the spotlight and get a lot of eyeballs on their improvements in the last few months. It lowers the barrier of entry to get people willing to give it another chance. Those are the people that Wildstar needs to reach in order to become a thriving game. You might oppose this on the grounds that the business model change could alter the game away from what you like about it… and maybe it will. But it doesn’t matter. The present course is a death sentence. People who actually want to keep playing Wildstar have to understand that if the game can’t turn a profit, it doesn’t matter how much you like it. Unprofitable games die in this market.

As Belghast and Liores both said back when ESO did this, someone has to pay for these games. The subscription market isn’t doing so in sufficient number (for a number of reasons, only some of which are within Carbine’s control), so the only alternative left is to switch and try to get money from other sources.

I hope it works out for them. I like the game, and my best friend loves it. I want it to do well. This way, it has a second chance to do so.

Realistic Budgeting – A Feature Your Game Must Have

It’s winter in Canada, and that means snow. And cold. This year, it means both, at the same time, in a relentless assault that’s led to a state of emergency being declared in Saint John. When snow is causing a state of emergency in Canada, you know it’s a rough winter.

The problem with this particular weather is that it’s just been an onslaught with no breaks. There is at least one and potentially two more storms in the seven day forecast, one of which is another 40cm (that’s over a foot for my American friends). At the same time we’re getting bitter cold (-20C with windchills pushing into -30C), without the occasional thawing period that we usually get this time of year. The combination is enough that we’re running out of places to put the snow, it’s getting hard to see around corners on roads, pipes are freezing, and other similar problems. It’s messy. Locally, my snow banks are as tall as I am now, and that’s a problem when I have to shovel more snow over them later this week.

Realistic Budgets Are A Feature – Your Game Must Have It

Paraphrasing Joel Spolsky there when he was talking about “shipping” being a feature software must have. He was bang on. But a realistic budget is also a feature and you must have it. Why MMOs aren’t making enough money lately has been a hot topic with Elder Scrolls Online going free to play, and then Sony Online Entertainment being sold off. Is it really as simple as blaming the players for not being willing to subscribe? Or maybe we are reaping what we have sown? Do we have to pay somehow?

Well… yes, and no. It’s true that games need to make money to survive, and that publishers will try to find ways to do that if a sub model fails. It’s not at all true that these are poor suffering companies because the players are too mean to pay. That thinking totally ignores the cost side of the equation: absurd budgets.

Should We Even Make This Software?

In my life as a software developer, there are a couple main kinds of projects: For sale, and not for sale.

Not For Sale

Not for sale is easy. We’re making it for some reason, probably to fill a need internally. It will have a cost to develop, which we’ll call E (expenses). We’re going to do it because it’s going to either boost productivity somewhere, improve an ineffecient process, or allow us to do something we can’t do right now. All of those things tend to have a monetary value to the company, which we’ll call P.

In some cases, there is a commercial off the shelf product that can do what we want, available for some cost, along with training and support. We’ll call the total of that C.

We figure out if the software is even worth making by comparing P to E and C. If P > E, it’s worth our time to develop it. If P > C, it’s worth our time to buy something to do it. If both are true, we can compare E to C and figure out which way is best. If neither are true, then it’s not financially logical to do anything.

For Sale

For sale software is similar, except instead of benefit to the company, we’re looking at revenue (R). Unlike savings to the company for an internal efficiency project, we don’t usually know what revenue will actually be. We have to estimate it based on the size of the market, our ability to penetrate that market and take share from other companies, opportunities to grow the market, and so on. If we have a good revenue estimate, then we can figure out if it’s worth the risk of developing the product by comparing R and E (E now also includes advertising along with external user support and so on).

If the numbers don’t work, we shouldn’t make the product at all. If we don’t have the money to make the product in a way that can be profitable, we shouldn’t make the product at all. This tends to be easy to understand in the world of physical goods: If someone came to you and said they needed $5 million to make a new soft drink but it’s a good investment because the worldwide soft drink market is huge and thus they only need 2% of it… they’re delusional. How are they going to get 2% of that market away from Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and the other massive, entrenched, global players?

They’re not. I mean, it’s not impossible, but the vast majority of plays like this will fail spectacularly.

MMOs Have The Same Problem

This is also true in games, and MMOs in particular. FPS games at least have a shelf life, and the market has shown repeatedly that it will buy a new game when it’s bored with Call of Duty/Battlefield. Single Player RPGs run out of content, so there’s a market for new ones. On and on it goes.

MMOs don’t run out in the same way. Successful ones stick around and hold players a very long time, and those players are much harder to draw to another subscription game.  We’ve seen that play out time and time again – players try a new game, but most don’t stick around. AAA level MMOs a few months after launch tend to be somewhere in six figures for subscriptions. That’s the realistic expectation.

So if you’re spending $200 million (ESO’s rumored budget) to $500 million (to borrow Tobold’s number for SW:TOR) to build a MMO, what are your expectations for numbers? The only way to make a profit on a $500 million investment in a MMO is if you get WoW numbers.

Problem? WoW is an anomaly. It is an order of magnitude larger than everybody else. It sucks up most of the paying player base, and those players are extremely hard to suck away long-term, because Blizzard has a massive development budget and a very experienced team. If you budget your game on the basis that it will be more successful than every single other MMO ever created except WoW, you are delusional. There’s no other way to say it. This is not how corporations that seek reliable profit are run.

ESO turned to F2P because ESO is a medicore MMO, with an appropriately sized customer base for the game they actually created in the MMO market. That isn’t good enough, because their costs were astronomical for the size of the market, and that is entirely on them. Players have no obligation to buy something just because a company puts it out. That is not how a free market works.

The players have spoken pretty clearly. Millions of them are willing to pay for WoW. FFXIV is experiencing a strong rebirth and is doing well with paying customers as well. People will pay for what they want, but the market that will pay for MMO gameplay is only so big, and most of it is tied up in games already. For your game to be successful, you have to pull players away from those games, which is extremely difficult.

Given that, the revenue expectations for a lot of these games are absurd. In a world of sane corporate planning, some of these failing MMOs would never have been developed in the first place. That’s just what the size of the market dictates, and unless you really can do better than Blizzard, you should not expect your game to be bigger than all others that came before it.

After all, even Blizzard didn’t expect that.

Are Modern “MMOs” really MMOs?

My experiment with Final Fantasy XIV came to an abrupt halt when Rhiss and I tried it together. The whole idea was to get a game we could both play, as we have played MMOs as a duo since we met in Goldshire eons ago. So the plan was simple: group up, do some stuff for an evening, and see how it feels. Simple, right?

Well, no. Trial accounts can’t group with each other, so we couldn’t do it. Rhiss promptly lost interest and that was that. I liked the game and maybe one day when the timing is good I’ll just buy a couple copies and try again. I understand that restriction is probably just collateral damage from trial accounts not being able to form groups with paid accounts (to limit spam abuse), but still.

Is It Still A MMO If You Never Interact With Other People?

Earlier this week, the Aggronaut was talking about maintenance gaming (aka: logging in just to do chores to pay maintenance), and happened to mention that nobody ever leaves their garrisons in Warlords of Draenor. That prompted me to ask a simple question: “If nobody leaves their garrisons to play with other people, is it really a MMO?”

Turns out, the MMO Gypsy addressed the general issue back in 2011. Has anything changed since then?

Not really.

Single Player Game With Some Group Content

Themepark MMORPGs in particular are largely designed to be primarily single player affairs these days. Elder Scrolls Online essentially marks you as the “chosen one” in the intro zone, and you’re following a single player storyline doing single player quests for most of the game, and don’t really have a reason to interact with anybody at all, until you hit some group content. If you turned every other person you see in the outside world in ESO into a bot, would anybody notice?

Wildstar is the same thing, only you don’t start off as a chosen one. But still, the plot quests are all designed for single player play. The game’s outdoor content is so designed around it that if you quest in a group (as I always did), most of the combat is mind numbingly boring. I was playing an engineer tank and Rhiss was an esper healer, and we would just pull 7 or 8 things at a time so we’d have to stay awake, and that was in our DPS specs. In our actual tank & healer setups, we duoed most of the outdoor group content without difficulty. I’d throw out zone messages telling other people we were doing it in case some soloers needed to get the quest done, but we didn’t need them for anything.

The worst part was the story quests that were forced single player. Yes, this is marketed as an MMORPG, and the game flat out disallowed grouping for these quests. We then proceeded to do the exact same thing alone that we could have done together, and then had to figure out how to reconcile how the hell this narrative makes any kind of sense at all to a pair of roleplayers.

So, we’re playing a game where the first two letters are “Massively Multiplayer” and the last three are “Role Playing Game”, and we have a situation where it’s impossible to play multiplayer, and roleplaying the actual events doesn’t make sense because we somehow both became the “chosen one” and both did major story elements that are written in the singular, simultaneously, with the same NPCs.

Does that make sense to anybody at all?

Functionally speaking, you can play Wildstar exactly the same way you play Mass Effect 3: entirely singleplayer until you feel like doing some of the group content. That lasts right up until endgame, where suddenly it’s a totally different game that is entirely about instanced group play (so still not massive, but at least one of the Ms is true).

A Series of Unfortunate Evolutions

This goes on and on, but it really goes back to WoW, which perfected it. Over the years decisions were made that made the game more single player friendly, and other games in the genre followed suit.

Individually, those decisions all made sense. I played through a lot of them, and they were trying to solve real problems that players were having at the time. In the small picture, they were the right thing to do.

But in the big picture, the sum total of all those decisions together has turned your average MMO today into something where only the O is actually true. Consider:

  1. You play almost entirely alone. For levelling quest content in particular, other people are primarily in the way. Grouping rarely helps you. In fact, grouping lowers the difficulty so much that any kind of skill or even attention required to win fights goes away.
  2. Nothing anybody does really impacts anybody else long term. Sure, another player (who happens to be in the same area, on the same server/instance/phase) could mess with you in various ways, but that’s it. Whatever they do to the world state doesn’t impact your world state long term, and nothing you do to the world state impacts theirs. Especially with phasing and instancing, you’re playing in your own copy of the game world and not a single world.
  3. There’s a superficial economy that is kind of player driven but not really overly functional. The commodity exchange is how I mostly interacted with other people to do business in Wildstar, and again if you replaced the other people with AI I would not have noticed any difference.

You know what game I could have just been describing? Diablo 3, back when it had an auction house. It’s not a MMO, but only in the sense that the other people simply aren’t visible at all and thus can’t get in your way.  Otherwise, it’s actually better at encouraging group play than the levelling content in most MMOs these days, as grouping makes the game harder (unless someone vastly outgears everyone else) and the rewards better. There is more reason to group in Diablo than there is in these supposed “MMO” games. Let alone what passes for a “MMO” on Facebook and iOS, where the term is used for anything that has other players that you might fight at some point.

Genre Decline

It’s not exactly a secret that the MMO genre is not doing overly well. Successful launches have been few and far between for years, with a lot of disappointments and failures. New game launches are slowing down significantly, and the playerbase is stagnating. There’s lots of reasons for that, and I’m not sure the problem of most MMOs not actually being MMOs is even one of them. If that’s what people wanted, they’d probably be playing a game that’s closer to it (like Eve) rather than the “single player except on raid night” Warlords of Draenor. So maybe it’s not a problem.

Or maybe it is, and people just don’t realize it. I have a choice tonight of playing a MMO and continuing to level and do the quest content. I also have the choice of playing Dragon Age: Inquisition. Both of them are offering me the same thing: single player storyline, combat, crafting, and quests. One of them is far, far better at delivering that. There’s even a multiplayer mode if I want to try my hand at it.

In that comparison, no MMO can possibly win. Bioware made an RPG of the year winner at what it does, competing on it’s home turf is not a winning strategy for a genre that’s meant to excel at something else. And that’s the whole problem – the strength of a MMO that should let it compete is those two Ms, but they’ve been neutered into nothingness in an attempt to make the game single player friendly.

I wonder how many other people out there are like me – wanting to play a real MMO, and not something that’s pretending to be a single player game?