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.

NBI Talkback Challenge 4 – Way late

Yep, I’m late. That’s just how it goes these days. Kids, work, games, you know the drill. 🙂 I actually wanted to write about XCOM 2, but at the moment I don’t really have much to say except yelling about how excited I am, so maybe later.

NBI Talkback 4 – Questionnaire

The NBI posted a series of questions to get some discussion going. As mentioned, I’m late. But as I once learned in grade 6 when I didn’t want to do an assignment because it required drawing and I was really conscious of my super lack of talent… better late than never.

Lust – Do you enjoy games more if they have scantily clad and “interestingly proportioned” avatars? Do you like playing as one of these avatars? Why or why not?

Yes, but in the right circumstances. Here’s the thing – I really like games with different body options, including the ‘interestingly proportioned’ ones. I do use them when I think it suits the character. It doesn’t always. A scrawny orphan boy shouldn’t be built like a UFC Middleweight, and a lady Paladin probably isn’t going to have the same build as a lazy noblewoman (one will be much more toned than the other).

That issue especially applies to clothing. I really like lots of options here, including the revealing kind. But, they have to fit. It’s one thing for a mage to dress that way, as their “armor” doesn’t really do anything and is just clothing anyway. I go absolutely insane when I see things like boob windows on tanking plate. It’s immersion killing, because that armor is worse than useless. It has a giant target saying “aim here and I’ll die!”

Charisma doesn’t deflect arrows.

Gluttony – Do you have a game backlog of unfinished games but still buy new games regardless? Why or why not?

I’m an avid Steam user, so that’s kind of an automatic yes. 😉 There’s games on sale that I want, so I pick them up. Other times a game I want comes in a sale bundle with 10 others, so I wind up with nine games I didn’t really care about. There’s games I bought and haven’t gotten around to playing yet in order to support the developer and genre. That’s a big thing in more niche genres, as a few sales really matters.

It’s the old line – as a kid I had lots of time but no money for games. As an adult, I have no time but lots of money for games. The other side effect is that I replay games far less than I used to, just because back then I only had one game and now I have tons.

Greed – Do you enjoy hand outs in a game? Have you ever opted to NOT do an action / in game activity because the rewards were lacking? Why or why not?

I actually don’t enjoy hand outs that much. Rewards are good, but just having stuff rain down on you defeats the whole point of playing. I have similar problems with games that are too easy. If I can play the game without having to pay attention, it quickly loses interest.

That said, incentives certainly help encourage me to do something. FFXIV is a great example of that – the only reason why I queue for Guildhests at this point is that there’s rewards for doing them. It also happens to mean new players trying to do them have a pool of experienced ones to help out, but at some point doing them for the hundredth time gets old.

Sloth – Do you ever leech or AFK in a party? Do you discourage others from attempting things that you feel are difficult? Have you ever seen someone that needed help, but decided not to help them? Why or why not?

I never AFK without telling people unless it’s some kind of emergency. If they choose to keep going clearing trash without me, so be it, but it’s not deliberate leeching.

I discourage others from attempting things if we’re in a group and I think we have no chance of success. Hitting your head against a wall pointlessly isn’t fun. I did progression raiding though, I’m used to having to learn a fight and failing many, many times.

And while I’m sure that more than once I’ve seen someone who needed help and ignored them, it’s something I try to avoid doing. “Never” is a pretty absolute word, and I doubt I’m that perfect.

Wrath – Ever get angry at other players and yell (or TYPE IN CAPS) at them? Have you ever been so angry to stalk a person around in game and / or in the forums? Why or why not?

Yes, but then I matured some, and was given responsibility to lead raids in WoW. I learned pretty quickly that trying to help people improve was a lot more effective than yelling, as most of the people there actually want to win too. For people who are jerks, I just use the ignore button.

Envy – Ever felt jealous of players who seem to be able to complete content you can’t? Do you ever suspect they are hacking or otherwise cheating? Why or why not?

Again, before I got older. Now I don’t really care. It helps that I don’t play anything competitively anymore, and rarely play PvP at all. I mostly play cooperative and single player games, and it doesn’t really matter if someone else is better at those.

Pride – Are you one of those people that demands grouping with other “elite” players? Do you kick players out of your team who you feel are under-performing? Why or why not?

No, and yes.

Look, there’s different types of content, and different types of groups. When I was a progression raid healing leader, I absolutely had to do that. If someone can’t cut it and refuses to work on improving, or even worse, simply doesn’t want to put the effort in, they’re harming the entire team. I owe it to every single person on the team to give them the best chance at success, and I’m not being a good leader if I just make the team carry someone because I refuse to be mean. Sometimes, leadership means being the bad guy.

That said, while I was a progression raider, I also ran a weekend “fun run” raid group. That group was alts of the regular raid team, family/friends of those folks who wanted to see the content, and occasionally people we just picked up who wanted to come along. That group was explicitly there to let people who weren’t regular raiders see content. Failure was expected. No particular skill/gear level was required. The only goal was to have a good time, and in that case the only people I’d kick were those who attacked other members.

We tended to have enough experienced people with us that we did fairly well, but we usually carried at least one person and nobody cared in the slightest. It was a blast seeing the spouse of a regular member do the content for the first time and get all excited about it.

 

“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.

Consider:

  • 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.

“Should Modders Get Paid” Is the Wrong Question

It’s New Blogger Initiative month, where people get together and encourage new people to start blogging. If you’re reading this and wanted to blog, go for it! Lots of people are out there to lend a hand right now. Belghast made a blog about it, and even mentioned “wayward bloggers”, or those of us who lost our way. I can probably fit into that group because I’m so erratic in when I feel like posting something.

Paid Mods Create A Shitstorm As If They Didn’t Already Exist

Well, everyone knows about this, right? Steam introduces paid mods, then pulls it only a few days later in the face of the Internet exploding as only it can. In some ways, I just feel like calling the whole thing #FirstWorldProblems and moving on, but it got me thinking.

For one thing, paid mods aren’t new. Anyone remember Zygor Guides? That was a paid mod for World of Warcraft that came out eons ago. It wasn’t particularly controversial, beyond people finding it goofy that anyone would pay for that. People did, though.

How about Cities: Skylines? Did you know that has paid mods? It does, in fact they cost the community $817 per building, and are made by a former Maxis employee who did art for SimCity. People don’t find that offensive either, in fact it was hailed as an inventive way to support modders. The key difference I suppose here is that because it’s a Paetron, the mod is actually free to individuals. A bunch of people banded together as a community and that is where it’s coming from, but it’s not actually “free”. Someone is paying for it.

How about Counterstrike? Team Fortress? Every MOBA that came after Defense of the Ancients? Those all started as mods. One of them created an entire genre, and that genre is worth huge money now. Mod makers that manage to make money aren’t new.

Then Valve came in, and things went pear shaped real fast.

“Should Modders Get Paid?” Is The Wrong Question

The whole problem with this argument is that people are asking the wrong questions, and talking about the wrong things. “Should modders get paid?” is a stupid question. For this recent example, we’re talking about an American based service in Steam, and American based game studio in Bethesda, and although the game has a worldwide audience, a lot of it is in America (so I’ll focus there).

America is a free capitalist economy (mostly). That means you have the right to go create something and try to sell it. Nobody is under any obligation to buy it. You have no right to get paid to make mods. Assuming you’re not breaking any laws or the game license agreements, you do have the right to try and charge for it, if you want. That’s the reality of the situation. Asking if someone should get paid is like asking if a musician should get paid. The answer is simply “if they can convince someone their work is worth paying for.”

Defense of the Ancients. Not worth paying for, according to lots of people, because it’s a mod.

I mean, if you’re saying “no, modders shouldn’t get paid”, think about that. You’re saying that Defense of the Ancients is something that nobody should have made money from, but DotA 2 is. Why? What’s the difference? DotA created the genre, and DotA 2 couldn’t exist without it. Tons of time, effort, skill, and love went into DotA, more so than a lot of other games that people consider it okay to charge for. Yet it’s not allowed to be monetized, while its sequel is? How does that make any sense at all?

That’s the problem with this whole question. It seems to assume that we’re talking about overly simplistic mods, rather than the high end mods that are essentially game upgrades or full games in themselves.

How Should We Pay Them?

The real question here is how to do this in a way that works for everyone, and this is where Valve failed in horrific fashion. In particular, Valve gave themselves a 30% cut, Bethesda a 45% cut, and the modder a 25% cut. If you pay $4 for a mod, the modder gets $1 and Bethesda (who did nothing), get almost double that.

That’s absurd. I know, people say that Bethesda created the game. So what? They were already paid for the game when you bought it to use the mod. They use all the mods as a marketing point to sell more copies of the game (as does Paradox with Cities: Skylines, and Blizzard with Warcraft 3 when stuff like DotA was massively prolonging the life of that game). They’re already making money because of mods, and there is no particular reason why they deserve a cut of someone elses work.

“But the modders are using their game!”

So what? If you create and show a Powerpoint presentation as a consultant, do you give Microsoft 45% of the consulting fee? No, of course not. That’d be stupid. Microsoft was already paid for the tool. They don’t get paid when you use Notepad, and they don’t get paid when Bethesda used Microsoft’s compiler (or whatever compiler they used) to build Skyrim. Black & Decker doesn’t get a cut of every job you do with a hammer, either. Those are tools. You pay for the tool, then you use it.

In the case of modding, Skyrim itself is a tool. It should be treated accordingly.

Anyway… Valve’s system was bad because modders got so little of the money (among many other reasons). The Paetron model used by some others is better in that regard, as the modder gets 95% of the amount you pay. The problem with that model is that it’s basically on donations, and lots of people get to use the mods without paying anything. That itself isn’t a perfect model, but it’s vastly superior in terms of dollar efficiency and has been used successfully.

There are ways to go about this without totally botching it up like Valve did, and I expect it’ll get figured out one day. People who create entirely new games as mods, or do other massive enhancements should have the ability to make some money by doing that, if people are willing to pay for it. Anything else is an entirely artificial divide where games made in some tools are more worthy of money than games made in other tools, because reasons… and that is entirely ridiculous.

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.

Dungeon Master Appreciation Month – Love Thy Players

It’s Dungeon Master Appreciation month. Wizards of the Coast has offered up a bunch of articles on that, including suggestions on how to show appreciation. I’m currently a DM, with players coming over every sunday and my campaign going into year three (and 100 sessions!). While it’s certainly cool to be appreciated, I don’t think doing something special is particularly required or expected.

Mess Up My Sandbox

I’ve created a lovely little sandbox world for my campaign to take place in. Then the players come along and totally mess it up. This being a tabletop game, there are no real limitations on what they can do, like in a video game. Any hair-brained scheme they can imagine, they can try and do. It leads to wildly unexpected outcomes when they decide to work with the mafia boss’ wife, unintended deaths because half the party decided to have tea mid combat, and plotlines being thrown out and becoming improv routines because I couldn’t possibly predict that they would decide to chase a silly little sub story for two sessions and get a party member arrested. And of course, the session where one player wanted to negotiate a peace treaty between warring factions, and I got every other player to put aside their characters and play a diplomat from a relevant world power instead so we could actually play out that negotiation.

Yes, all those things happened. My sandbox is a mess these days, with everybody out of place, characters missing, planned storylines abandoned, other ones scribbled into the notes after the fact so I’d remember what in the world just happened, and so on.

It’s delightful. When we have a moment together that people talk about weeks later, that’s all the appreciation I really want.

Love Thy Players

And that’s really it, for me. The whole idea of DM appreciation is weird to me. I wound up running this campaign because one I was playing in ended, another player made a suggestion and offered to buy a source book for someone willing to run it, and I had an idea for a story I wanted to see play out. Here we are.

I know that the DM does a lot of work to make a campaign happen, having done it for a couple of years. I’ve had to make maps of embassies so the players could try to kidnap someone (for the mob, who then ransomed that person back to the same embassy for a tidy profit). I’ve got a fictional tabloid newspaper full of stories about what’s going on in the world. There’s weekly updates. Ledgers on item shop sales. On and on it goes.

But without those players who give me their Sunday night for years at a time, what have I really got? Not much. All the time they gave me to tell my little story to them is a great present, and I’m very thankful for it.

At the risk of being cliched, that they keep finding time for me is the best form of appreciation they can show me…

But… Let Us Play Too!

Okay, there is one more thing they could do – Run A Game!

The only downside to all this time spent as a DM is that since I started, I haven’t been a player in any pen & paper game. I’m kind of antsy to get playing again, and pretty eager for someone to run a game that I can play in.

One thing we don’t have is an overabundance of people willing to DM. We can always use more. If you want to thank your DM but don’t know how? Try running a session or two where they can just be a player. Trust me, that is the nicest thing you can do for us!

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?

Endless Legend Needs More Hype

I’ve been seeing a little bit of hype for Endless Legend since it came out, but not very much. For a game with pretty strong reviews (stronger than the similarly timed and themed Civilization: Beyond Earth) and a previously successful game (Endless Space), it flew somewhat under the radar. That’s largely due to competition from the better known Civ franchise and Amplitude being a small studio.

It’s not based on the game. Endless Legend is awesome. And hey, it’s 50% off right now!

Yay, No Infinite City Spam

Lots of 4x games try to solve the infinite city spam problem in different ways. Endless Legend handles it by having cities control a “region” of the map.

2014-12-22_00002
The thick lines are the regional borders.

You can place a city in the region more or less wherever you want, but the region can only have one city. So you can’t just crowd out cities with more cities and make a general mess. I find this a much more elegant solution, especially combined with the other things they did:

  • Cities start off as a hex and it’s surrounding hexes, but you can build upgrades to grow the city and increase it’s size. Cities can become very big, and you get all the tile yield in the area of the city without needing workers to “work” it (workers are strictly additional to tile yields and assigned indepedently).
  • Each region can have a minor faction, who is already there. You can pacify them through conquest or diplomacy and then settle the area for bonuses. If you assimilate them into your empire you can get more bonuses and extra units to build. That sole city in the region becomes very important because you need it to get the minor faction and it’s bonuses.

The end result of all this is that you don’t need 50 cities to really control an area like you do in some other games, and the one city in each region is very important because of the need for regional control. It makes the cities feel really significant, as they should.

Tactical Combat? Yay!

Tactical combat interface
Tactical combat interface

Your armies move around the strategic map like in every other 4x. A big difference between Endless Legend and a game like Civ is that when armies encounter each other, the map expands into a tactical map. From here, you can arrange your troops in deployment, and then give orders for combat. Both sides give all orders for the round simultaneously, and then combat executes. If an order can’t execute (because the unit you wanted to attack is already dead, for example), units have some default orders they fall back on. You can also auto play this if you don’t want to do it yourself.

I like the addition a lot, as it makes combat more in depth while still making some kind of sense. Civ IV’s combat was more or less entirely about army composition as you’d just throw stacks at each other, and Civ V’s combat had a really weird scale with archers able to shoot clear across cities and units not being able to form coherent armies. This isn’t as sophisticated as say Age of Wonders III, but it’s enough to make combat more meaningful without making it the entirety of the game.

One other nice thing is that you can customize your units. There’s an editor in game to choose new equipment for units to make new ones before training them, which makes them more expensive and might require strategic resources. It reminds me of a game like Fallen Enchantress (or Galactic Civilization & Endless Space’s ship builder), and it’s a lot of fun to create your own custom armies.

Factions & Empires, There’s A Lot Going On

There are a wide variety of factions, and they play very differently. One of them can’t even declare war, for example. One can’t build new cities. The uniqueness of them really changes how you approach the game, and it’s a very welcome addition compared to the generally the same factions of Beyond Earth.

Then you’ve got city management, hero management, the ability to form empire plans on what you want to focus on for bonuses, lots of different ways to win, and so on. There is a lot going on in this game, so much that occasionally I find it takes me a while to take in everything the UI is trying to show me. In true Amplitude faction the UI is pretty good and conveys a lot of information relatively well. It’s just that with how many different things are happening at once in your empire, it can take some time to take it all in. There are still a few rough edges to polish off, however. One thing I noticed is that notifications can come up even while you can’t deal with them, such as getting a notification popup for a new minor faction while the tactical combat UI was also opening, so I couldn’t use the popup for anything. But it’s a minor issue.

Multiplayer Is Here, But Co-Op Isn’t

One thing the Civ games do better is coop play. Endless Legend supports multiplayer pretty well, but not for true coop play. The most you can do is play separately until getting alliance tech unlocked, then forming an alliance in game. There’s no allied victory though, so the game will tell one of you that you lost even if you both win.

If you compare that to the recent Civ games, which feature full team play from turn 1 along with allied victory, and it’s a deficiency. Endless Space had the same gap, and I’m not entirely sure why Amplitude doesn’t seem interested in it. Perhaps it’s just a budget issue, they are a much smaller studio after all.

All that said, Rhiss and I played Endless Space in coop and had fun despite missing those things. We’re going to play Endless Legend too, and I expect to have some fun with it.

It’s Awesome

Overall, this is a great game. For the cost during the sale it’s an incredible value, and I’d encourage every 4x fan to give it a try. It’s entirely possible we’re looking at the best 4x of 2014 in this not terribly well known game.

MMOs and Levels – A Poor Combination

Yesterday, Belghast was taking about “Blizzard Bux”, and happened to make a comment about mentoring systems. That prompted a comment from me about how mentoring is just a band-aid over the real problem – level ups. The discussion then got going with Rowan chiming in with a few points, then wondering how much demand there is for a level-free MMO.

I don’t know how much demand there would be for something so different than what people are used to, but I do know why the level system is bad.

Most Games End

Levels as a progression mechanic are extremely frequent in games, and in most games I like them. They work great in tabletop RPGs (Dungeons & Dragons), single player RPGs (Final Fantasy and a million others), and even some multiplayer ones (Diablo 3’s Paragon Levels don’t really interfere with playing with friends but do offer extra progression). They also work in MMOs… for a while.

What most of these games have in common is that they have an end. D&D campaigns typically end, but epic levels exist for people who want to keep playing past the normal level cap. Single Player RPGs sometimes offer open world or side things to do, but they also all end.

That’s the key thing with these games. Level progression keeps going for the duration of the entire game, and then the game is over. The expectation is that you’ll either start a new playthrough, or go play something else at some point. Games have typically been designed without the goal of making you play the same progression cycle forever, and it’s that environment that levels were designed for and where they work.

MMO’s Don’t End

The problem with MMOs is that they don’t end. Once you reach the level cap, you get to the “endgame”. At this point, levels are gone. So long as you’re doing current content, levels might as well not exist. They do nothing. Progression becomes based on something else, which is typically gear. An awful lot of players spend most of their time at the level cap, where levels don’t do anything whatsoever because there aren’t any.

This creates all kinds of problems:

  1. If you’re a player who was playing for the levelling journey, the game just ended. Endgame is a very, very different game in most MMOs (like WoW).
  2. By outlevelling old content, it’s been rendered trivially easy and both not rewarding and mind numbingly boring to do.
  3. You can’t play with friends who are playing more slowly because you’ll outlevel them and the game just doesn’t work well in that circumstance.
  4. Your friends can’t play with you if they join a game late, because they’re miles behind.

The original comment that started this discussion was about mentoring systems, which some games add to let you lower your level to try and correct #3. Wildstar also lets you scale down to dungeon level to correct #2, but it’s far from a perfect fix. Sure I can become level 15 again to do a dungeon, but I don’t go back to level 15 skills only, and I have ones I don’t have. Thus my Engineer tank had a far easier time doing the level 15 content as a scaled down level 30 than as an actual level 15, due to the game not giving me my real tanking skill set until after level 20.

Mentoring systems are a nice band-aid to try and cope with a problem, but wouldn’t it be better to just not have the problem in the first place?

As for #4, Blizzard tried to correct that by introducing an auto-level boost to 90 with Warlords of Draenor, so you can get to the new content faster. That just totally obsoletes all the old content and illustrates my point perfectly – if levels are really a good idea in a MMO, why did they have to resort to letting you skip almost all of them?

Alternatives

I understand that some levels can be useful, as a way introduce people to skills gradually and let people learn how to play without being overwhelmed. They also let you grow in the world, to a point. What I’d like to see is a much flatter leveling curve, and to throw out the idea that an expansion requires more levels. If the point of the game is largely what you’re doing at the end game anyway, don’t waste people’s time by making them get a bunch more levels to reach the new normal, and splitting up friends from playing with each other by putting a level wall in the way.

Keep in mind that endgame is already based around level-less progression. There is no reason why the rest of the game can’t be made the same way. As an added bonus, since gear is all based on stat formulae, it’s much easier to scale down for content than removing levels is.

You can also simply learn skills in another way entirely, such as given by gear as you do things, which Belghast mentioned in today’s follow up post (looks like we were writing at the same time!).

WoW even did something different with Death Knights – starting them at level 50 and handing out talents & skills from quests, rather than making people replay those 50 levels. There are quite a lot of ways to skin this cat, I’d just like to see developers acknowledge that a system designed for campaigns & storylines that have a defined end isn’t suited to a genre that is meant to not end, and work to come up with better things. Band-aid fixes really don’t solve the problem.