Author Archives: Azuriel
So everyone seems to be talking about
Crestfall Crowfall, the latest unreleased Jesus game from veteran Jesus game developers. Included amongst them is the perennial nostalgia favorite, Raph Koster, bringing up the consultant rear. Or as I like to call him, the M. Night Shamamamalan of video game design. I mean, I’m looking at his Wikipedia and I’m seeing a huge blank starting from around 2006 onwards. I’m not a game designer, of course, but if I were, I would like to think that the people who deserve recognition are, you know, actually making games people are buying. Maybe even in the last five years!
In any case, I’m not exactly sure why we’re supposed to care about Crowfall right now. I suppose there’s a deep, philosophical difference between straight, corporate PR advertisements (e.g. Guild Wars 2 manifestos) and… Kickstarter campaigns, right? It used to be that these companies paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in advertising into the face of a skeptical audience, but now the script has been fully flipped:
That is an average of almost $92 per backer, by the way.
What I will give Crowfall some much deserved credit for is its very evocative premise:
We are Immortal. The Gods choose the best of us to be Champions. They send us to the Dying Worlds to fight, to collect the souls of Damned. The Mortals fear us. They see us as Executioners and Scavengers. They call us Crows…
That has a lot of juice. It neatly solves the conceptual problems of “why do worlds reset” and “why does my character respawn” and even “why am I doing this?” You can almost immediately hear the fanfiction being written – perhaps you’re not a champion, but a slave forced to collect food for a parasite god. Or you’re condemned to your own Sisyphean torment. And were these worlds “dying” before a bunch of hungry godlings showed up? This description greases the wheels even further: “The Shadow Worlds lie closer to the Hunger, where even the Gods dare not tread.” What do the gods fear from the Hunger that you yourself don’t? Mmmm.
But that is where this whole Crowfall hype thing both begins and ends with me. I mean, how many “genre-saving MMOs” are we up to now? Who is still playing ArchAge or Wildstar or whatever? There is jaded cynicism on the one hand, sure, but irrational exuberance (at best) is the other. Maybe everyone is just happy it’s not another endgame raiding MMO, I dunno. I do think we would all be better off pumping the brakes a bit so we can actually see what Jesus features make it off the cross of development.
Talk is cheap. Actually delivering a product that anyone still cares about when released is more difficult.
Keen has another post up lamenting the stagnant nature of modern MMO game design, while suggesting devs should instead be using ideas from games that came out 15+ years ago and nobody plays today. Uh… huh. This time the topic is mob AI and how things would be so much better if mobs behaved randomly dynamically!
Another idea for improving mob AI was more along the lines of unpredictable elements influencing monster behavior. “A long list of random hidden stats would affect how mobs interact. Using the orc example again, one lone orc that spots three players may attack if his strength and bravery stats are high while intelligence is low. A different orc may gather friends.” I love the idea of having visible cues for these traits such as bigger orcs probably having more bravery, and scrawny orcs having more magical abilities or intelligence — intelligence would likely mean getting friends before charging in alone.
The big problem with dynamic behavior in games is that it’s often indistinguishable from random behavior from the player’s perspective. One of the examples from Keen’s post is about having orcs with “hidden stats” like Bravery vs Intelligence that govern whether they fight against multiple players or call for backup. Why bother? Unless players have a Scan spell or something, there is no difference between carefully-structured AI behavior and rolling a d20 to determine whether an orc runs away. Nevermind how the triggers being visible (via Scan or visual cues) undermine all sense of dynamism. Big orc? Probably not running away. If the orc does run away, that’s just bad RNG.
There is no way past this paradox. If you know how they are going to react based on programming logic, the behavior is not unpredictable. If the behavior is unpredictable, even if it’s governed by hidden logic, it is indistinguishable from pure randomness. Besides, the two absolute worst mob behaviors in any game are A) when mobs run away at low health to chain into other mobs, and B) when there is no sense to their actions. Both of which are exactly what is being advocated for here.
I consider the topic of AI in games generally to be one of those subtle designer/player traps. It is trivially easy to create an opponent that a human player could never win against. Creating an opponent that taxes a player to their limit (and not beyond) is much more difficult, and the extent to which a player can be taxed varies by the player. From a defeated player’s perspective, there is no difference between an enemy they aren’t skilled enough to beat and an unbeatable enemy.
You have to ask yourself what you, as a hypothetical designer, are actually trying to accomplish. That answer should be “to have my intended audience have fun.” Unpredictable and tough mobs can be fun for someone somewhere, sure, but as Wildstar is demonstrating, perhaps that doesn’t actually include all that many people. Having to memorize 10+ minute raid dances is bad enough without tacking convoluted mob behavior outside of raids on top. Sometimes you just want to kill shit via a fun combat system.
Themepark MMO players enjoy simple, repetitive tasks – news at 11.
Game: Dragon Age: Inquisition
Recommended price: $25
Metacritic Score: 85
Completion Time: 40-90+ hours
Buy If You Like: Dragon Age, CRPGs, Bioware titles
Dragon Age: Origins felt like a seminal moment in computer gaming when it came out back in 2009. Here was an epic RPG written by Bioware that followed in the Baldur’s Gate style with all the conveniences of modern gaming. The lore was deep for a brand new IP, and turned many of the traditional fantasy tropes on their head (elves are actually slaves in the ghettos instead of immortal elites, etc). While certainly not the first title to do so, Origins also featured quite a few deliciously vexing moral decisions with no good answers. Although it stumbled here and there, the game nevertheless took me on a 100+ hour journey with characters I sorely missed after the ending credits.
Then there was Dragon Age 2. It went okay.
The first dozen or so hours in Dragon Age: Inquisition felt distressingly similar to Dragon Age 2. For example, combat remains more Action than Tactics. In fact, Bioware removed the pseudo-AI programming you could do in the prior two games and replaced it with… not much. The plot begins with a limp handshake via two factions warring that I care nothing about and no inklings that things will get better. In short, I was very, very worried.
Once I finally had a base of operations though… you know that feeling in the Mass Effect series once Shepard reaches the Normandy? Inquisition had that moment for me, and suddenly it felt as if my peripheral vision widened. The fun switch was flipped and stayed on for pretty much the entire ride.
The game feels massive. In fact, one of the big criticisms of Inquisition is that people end up staying in the first map (Hinterlands) doing quests for 15+ hours, long past the point when they could be exploring new lands. And I totally fell into that same trap myself. Honestly, Inquisition could easily have been the first draft of Dragon Age Online. It would not at all have felt out of place to see other Inquisitors running around, killing bears and closing Fade portals. Hell, the game already features a rather needlessly complicated and fiddly crafting system complete with dozens of resources nodes spread across the map.
Combat is much more like Dragon Age 2, as mentioned before, but gone are the magically spawning waves of enemies. As a result, most of the enemies you encounter feel as though they are actually part of the world you inhabit, and thus fighting them feels “real.” It also helps that there aren’t necessarily any prescribed “combat zones” – you could be fighting in the woods with trees blocking projectiles, or attacking up the side of a mountain, or using a boulder for elevation to trigger your Archery talent for bonus damage. Indeed, the sheer amount of verticality in the game is a huge triumph in making the world feel more organic.
In terms of plot, character development, and companion dialog, it is difficult to nail down my feelings on the matter in terms of whether it surpassed prior titles. I ended up playing Inquisition for over 90 hours, largely because I wanted to squeeze every ounce of party banter blood I could from even the stones of irrelevant sidequests. At the same time, most of the excellently written characters were from the first or second games (notable exception: Iron Bull), which feels like… cheating, somehow. Were they particular good in this game, or was I carrying over emotions from prior ones? Tough to say.
What is not at all tough to say is that I very much enjoyed my Inquisition experience overall, and am sad to see it go. I would not rank it amongst my favorites of all time, but Inquisition is the Dragon Age game we deserved after Origins. In short, it has renewed my faith and interest in the series as a whole, and was a joy to play besides. I am ready to follow Bioware into whatever form Dragon Age 4 takes.
In terms of creating an incentive to play, I believe that things like Daily Quests and other log-in rewards are extremely effective. That being said, I also believe it is an open question as to whether such incentives come at the expense of long-term engagement with the game. At least, those are my thoughts after reading the
long thorough post by Torvald that is making the rounds.
Players are logging on, feel compelled to go through their Garrison chores, getting those rewards that are placed right in front of them… Even though that very content is not fun and drains their stamina for engaging in other content. It reduces their stamina for engaging in other activities that absolutely require large blocks of time to give a reasonable hope of success. And for activites that don’t absolutely require large blocks of time, so many of those lack structure that the player defaults to assigning them large blocks of time for what it would require to be “worth it” (i.e. very few players want to make a trip for an unstructured rep grind just to grind for 15 minutes).
In this situation, Torvald is talking about WoW players who say “there’s nothing to do” despite there arguably being more things to do than ever before. A player feels like they have to complete the Garrison stuff immediately, lest they forever lose the reward and fall behind. And that is a sentiment that I 100% can relate to in expansions past. Remember the Tournament dailies in Wrath of the Lich King? Or Jewelcrafting dailies? The end goal required X amount of days to reach with few (or no) catch-up mechanisms, so each day you skipped doing them added that much more time to completion.
There is absolutely no question that I logged onto WoW some days solely to do daily quests. Similarly, there is no question that on the days where I logged on just to do dailies that I sometimes ended up hanging out with friends. So, in essence, the daily quests worked in making social situations possible. After all, the death knell of any MMO starts ringing when you no longer feel compelled to log on.
But I can totally feel the other side of this too. When you think about MMO burnout, what is the image in your mind? Did it come from the activities you found fun in the moment? Or did it come from the sense of crushing obligation? If you are having fun every time you play, is burnout even possible?
I hesitate to say that dailies are not fun generally, as I personally find satisfaction in the completion of even mundane tasks. I also enjoy the sense of character progression and the working towards a long-term goal. That said, dailies do in fact take up a non-inconsequential amount of limited play time. If you spend “just” 30 minutes on chores, how much time do you have left for other activities? And how do you avoid the sense of loss (i.e. opportunity cost) that derives from not completing dailies and letting those easy rewards go?
I do not know if there is a solution. The one offered by Torvald is to essentially reduce the number of Garrison chores directly, and then make the remaining ones take longer than a day (e.g. Weekly quests). I did enjoy when WoW experimented with allowing you to complete a full week’s worth of dungeon dailies in a single session, as that allowed you the freedom to either work on other projects guilt-free or only to log on the weekends and still remain somewhat competitive. Then again, I’m not entirely sure how healthy plowing through that many dungeon dailies on Reset Day really was.
It might be cute to suggest “no dailies” but I’m not sure we can really go back. At a minimum, other games will have daily quests and I know people who log onto them to get those easy rewards before logging off and playing the game without dailies. That scenario “drains your stamina” just the same as if the daily-less game had them.
I’m not sure there is a solution here other than the one I’m currently employing: not playing MMOs. Of course, Dragon Age: Inquisition has War Table timer-based quests now too. You just can’t escape.
In the long-term, it’s possible the “restructuring” going on at
SOE Daybreak could result in a better game company. In the short-term though? Jesus Christ:
Dave “Smokejumper” Georgeson (Director of Development for the EverQuest brand, @DaveGeorgeson)
Jeff Butler (Creative Director for the EverQuest brand, @JButlerDaybreak)
Linda “Brasse” Carlson (Community Manager, @Brasse)
Akil “Lyndro” Hooper (Everquest II developer, @akilh)
Aaron “Gnobrin” Bisnett (Weapon and Armor designer for 12 years, @Gnobrin)
Douglas “Endymion” VanDerveer (Everquest II game designer, @douglastweets)
Aimee “Ashlanne” Rekoske (Community Relations Project Manager, @Ashlanne)
Eric “Felgon” Smith (Associate Producer for EverQuest Next and Landmark, @F4Felgon)
Steve “Moorgard” Danuser (Lead Content Designer and Head of Story, @Moorgard)
Tiffany “Amnerys” Spence (Social Media, @JustTiffy)
Kyle “Hats” Manchester (Community Manager, @Hats)
Racheal “Afista” McKenny ( Everquest II community Manager, @Afista)
Noah Watkins (Graphic designer, @noahwatkins)
Kelduum Revaan (Programmer for H1Z1, @Kelduum)
Katharine Anderson (Build master for PlanetSide 2, @katharinelilly)
Xander Clauss (Base designer for PlanetSide 2, @XanderClauss)
Taylor Dowell (Systems designer for PlanetSide 2, @Tayradactyl)
David Carey (Systems designer for PlanetSide 2, @dcarey7761)
Aimee “Ashlanne” Rekoske (Community Relations Project Manager, @Ashlanne)
Michael “Xelgad” Ganz (Systems designer for EQII, @Xelgad)
Jeffrey Bard (Everquest II development)
Possibly all contracted employees – Not confirmed
(source1, source2, source3)
A more structured data post can be found here.
As you might imagine, morale in the /r/EQNext, /r/H1Z1, and /r/Planetside subreddits are at an all-time low. There is a thread up by David Carey (former PS2 dev) asking people to not hate on Columbus Nova, and the arguments presented make sense in a lot of ways. On the other hand, for PlanetSide 2 specifically, it’s not entirely clear that there is another “base designer” on staff to, you know, build more bases. So what we see currently might be all we ever get. Which is… not exactly encouraging. To say nothing about the future of H1Z1 or EQN especially, assurances be damned.
Because two posts aren’t enough!
Actually, the real reason is because during the comment back-n-forth with Syncaine, Wilhelm mentioned something I had never realized before: Blizzard actually does post revenue numbers for just World of Warcraft. You can follow along at home by navigating to the Activision Blizzard Investor page and the Q4 2014 Excel document entitled 12-Quarter Financial Model. On the Rev Mix by Platform tab, you get the following (edited) table:
The asterisk indicates that “Online” revenue solely has to do with WoW related subscriptions and services. So for 2014 WoW raked in $1.035 billion. Interestingly enough, this point of reference allows us to flip back to the NR and OI by Segment tab, which breaks down total revenue for just Blizzard (again, chart edited):
Apparently you can get a much easier summation of the above information from this PDF, which I only realized after the fact.
So, for 2014 Blizzard made $685m in non-WoW revenue. For the curious, those non-WoW figures were $319m in 2013 and $538m in 2012. As far as I know, only the Diablo 3 expansion and Hearthstone were notable releases in 2014, although obviously there is X amount of revenue coming in from incidental sales of D3, Starcraft, and such.
I was unable to find exact figures of total Reaper of Souls sales other than 2.7 million copies in the first week. Assuming $40 apiece, that lowers Hearthstone’s possible share by another $108m at a minimum. If the opening paragraphs of D3’s Wikipedia page can be believed, the original game has sold 15 million copies. Combined with news that D3 + expac sold 20 million altogether as of August 2014, that pushes the Diablo portion to $200m, minimum.
Going back to what we know, the Hearthstone revenue formulas are thus:
- [Hearthstone] = $850m – [$500m+ Destiny], or
- [Hearthstone] = $685m – [$200m+ non-WoW]
Incidentally, most of the Destiny reporting says it achieved $500m in revenue on Day 1. That’s not actually true – there was $500m in shipped product, but only $325m in actually-sold games in the first five days of release. Or about 5 million units, physical and digital. There are two near-as-we-can-tell figures that incorporate all of 2014: VGChartz’s 9.3 million units and 13 million unique players as of Christmas. Depending on how charitable you wish to be, that range is either $558m to $780m (@$60/copy), or $604.5m to $845m (@$65 average/copy). Which means Hearthstone is anywhere from $292m to… er, $5m.
I think I heard Syncaine fall off his chair from here.
All told, I still feel it’s entirely possible that Hearthstone made at least $100m in 2014, if not $200m. That’s a quite a reduction from my earlier post vis-a-vis $350m for Hearthstone, of course. And I’m fine with that in light of this new information; if I’m factually incorrect, then I will acknowledge it and move on. My only real horse in this fight is the ridiculously specious argument that A) Hearthstone is a mobile port, and B) it’s not that successful. Not only does current reality defy A, in terms of B it’s entirely possible Hearthstone (eventually?) outstrips Magic: the Gathering in yearly revenue.
Either way, not bad for a card game that came out of nowhere.
The big news in the Activision Blizzard Quarterly Report everywhere else is that WoW appears to have stabilized at 10 million subscriptions. Also, that Hearthstone has 25 million registered users, whatever that means. After reading through the transcript of the earnings call however, it turns out that we can estimate exactly how well Hearthstone is performing. Spoiler alert: it’s pretty damn good.
First, we have this quote from Bobby Kotick:
Last year, we launched 2 of the most successful new entertainment brands, Destiny and Blizzard’s Hearthstone. Combined, they attracted over 40 million registered players worldwide and generated more than $850 million in non-GAAP revenue, a testament to our team’s proven abilities to capture the imaginations of millions of people around the world time and time again.
Then from Eric Hirshberg (CEO of Activision):
So in closing, over the last 3 years, Activision Publishing has methodically expanded its portfolio, and for the first time in its history, now has 3 tent-pole properties, each of which generated over $500 million in non-GAAP revenue this year and drove the highest digital revenues in Activision Publishing’s history.
So by the power of inductive reasoning, we can say Hearthstone made around $350 million in revenue last year. Further, according to Thomas Tippl (COO), Destiny and Hearthstone are “tent-pole franchises” that were “profitable out of the gate” and are expected to “contribute to [Activision Blizzard’s] results every year in a significant way.” Combine that with Mike Morhaime confirming that the December release of the Goblins vs Gnomes expansion resulted in the highest monthly active players and highest revenue quarter-to-date, that indicates Hearthstone is still growing a year later. That’s kind of a big deal.
Now, it’s entirely possible that “more than $500 million” means Destiny has a larger slice of the $850 million combined revenue pie than I am assuming here. Maybe Hearthstone “only” achieved $300 million. Or even as little as $250 million. It’s helpful to keep some perspective though: all of paper and digital Magic: the Gathering brings in $250 million in revenue. So, on the low end, Hearthstone is already a bigger franchise than Magic: the Gathering. And apparently growing.
Not bad for a “casual app with a PC port.”
Tobold has a series of posts now in which he simultaneously blames players for the failure of F2P games and then denigrates everyone who, you know, plays RPGs for supporting/enjoying “Grind2Win.” Apparently it is unfair for someone who has played an RPG for longer than you to have any advantage whatsoever. I can only imagine what he thinks about XP as a concept.
In short: Tobold is against any form of progression that you can’t buy your way past; merely playing the game more is asking too much.
Perhaps I am being less charitable here, but I consider the entire “debate” to be, quite frankly, insane. If you spend more time reading a book than me, you will be further along in the story than I. That is… logic, working as intended. Meanwhile, time and money are not analogous; the former is distributed equally to all persons and the latter is not. Perhaps you could argue that more money allows for more day-to-day freedom (i.e. time), but that extra freedom still requires one to spend the same hours playing a game as anyone else.
There is literally no more fair a payment than time. Unless you are dying by mid-evening, everyone has the same 24 hours in their day and every single one of those hours is valuable. Conversely, money has a marginal utility such that $10 to one person is a rounding error and to someone else it’s food for the week.
One of Tobold’s complaints is that Grind2Win lessens the importance of skill. Well, yes and no. If two players of equal skill are fighting, the one who spent more time playing the game will probably win. And that’s… a terrible outcome, I guess? A great moral failing of design? I mean, how dare someone who spent more time in an activity have an advantage over someone who has not! A truly Just World would… have exactly that design.
In clashes of unequal skill however, the outcome is usually less clear-cut than what is being assumed here. Outside of level differences in RPGs and time-management games like Clash of Clans, it’s hard to say how big an advantage grinding gets you. Gevlon did demonstrate it was possible to clear an entire WoW raiding tier in blue gear. Indeed, the surprisingly large delta between skill and gear becomes obvious in most MMOs – squeezing in an extra attack per rotation (skill) will almost always trump a blanket 5/10/15% better DPS stats (time). In MMO PvP, 10% more health isn’t going to save you from being dismantled by a Pro Player.
So what Tobold seems to be really upset about is that small band of conflict between a mediocre player who plays a game often and the slightly-less mediocre player who doesn’t. Sorry, I can’t quite get worked up about the “inequity” of that situation. Not only is one’s time-advantage frequently capped – in MMOs via raiding tiers – it is not much to ask a player to… play the game. Even the most skilled Chess player in the world has to, you know, play a lot of Chess matches to move up the ladder.
All of this really ignores the fact that “Grind2Win” doesn’t even exist as a monetization strategy on its own. Without a cash shop bypass, “grind” really means “pacing” – you can complain about the pacing being off or too slow, but that’s about it. You can’t even argue that MMOs like WoW have weekly raid lockouts to milk subscriptions because it makes no sense. The world-first competition is over within a few resets, long before anyone can “grind” anything. And then the entire tier lasts six months or more, leaving plenty of time for anyone else that cares to get all the gear they want/need. The only scenario that one needs to be suspicious of is when a task is made arduous while there is a cash-based workaround.
The bottom line here is that Pay2Win and Grind2Win are not “equally unfair” and its insulting to even suggest it. I know it sucks to lose to a “no-lifer” who is really a human being that has spent more time playing a game than you, but it’s not even in the same league as someone buying their way to the endgame. A hundred dollars to a F2P whale is not of equal value to a hundred dollars from someone living paycheck to paycheck. Hours spent, though? That’s a direct correlation with how valuable a given activity is to you. And if you are unwilling to spend the time on something, what are you even complaining about?
Talk about an unexpectedly busy couple of days in MMO news.
Multiple struggling age-old companies shedding otherwise profitable enterprises for… reasons. First you have AOL unceremoniously dumping Joystiq and every blog under that umbrella, including WoW Insider and Massively. And now you have Sony selling SOE to an investment firm in what sounds like a shady back-alley deal. I mean, you’d think if it were a positive, on-the-level thing, there would be talk leading up to the deal, you know? Not just coming to work and seeing this out front:
There has been a lot of schadenfreude in terms of SOE/Massively bashing, but I’m not entirely sure that is the actual lede here. Sony hemorrhaged $1.29 billion last year, while restructuring itself out of the PC and low-range TV markets. While most articles mention that SOE specifically lost ~$60 million, that seems to be largely based on shuttering Free Realms, Star Wars: Clone Adventures, Vanguard, and Wizardly Online, not necessarily the profitability (or lack thereof) of SOE’s other titles. The other thing to keep in mind is that SOE’s losses are less than 5% of Sony’s total losses. So this deal seems a lot less like Sony dropping an under-performing asset and more like Sony pawning its laptop to make the rent payment.
As far as AOL goes, their primary aim these days is to sell ads, apparently.
We can suggest that the sale of SOE indicates that SOE is in trouble, but thus far the (optimistic?) indications are that its business as usual. PlanetSide 2 just started becoming profitable. No studios are being shut down (yet?). H1Z1 is… selling betas? EverQuest Next is still in the pipeline. Is there actually a better time to sell SOE to investors than right now, at the bottom of a potential growth curve? It is still entirely possible that “SOE being SOE” will ruin everything, but my point is that the sale itself is not indicative of anything in particular. Sony is about a half hour away from turning tricks on the street corner; can’t really blame SOE for that.
Well, other than the four failed MMOs closed last year, but that could happen to anyone.
One final note on the SOE thing: one of the senior managers of the no-name investment firm that bought SOE is Jason Epstein, who personally brokered the deal to buy Harmonix (Rock Band, etc) back from Viacom. While rhythm games have gone out of vogue in the US, Harmonix was still releasing games in 2014. So at least one guy knows his way around videogames.
I’m sure the true fallout has yet to start raining down, but as someone not at all invested in the outcome, I suggest keeping the wailing/high-fives to a minimum just yet. This could in fact be good news for
Pulled the trigger:
I took the above picture in HDR mode, which is why the screen seems a bit washed out and you can see the rest of my room. Indeed, as you can probably tell, I have yet to properly prepare the space. Once the remaining items filter in from Amazon, I’ll do a full write-up on my setup in the off-chance someone else wants to avoid doing the weeks of superfluous research I endured.
For the record though, the projector is a Favi HD-LED-4T, which I bought new off of eBay for $230.
And that’s an 8-foot diagonal screen.