Category Archives: Commentary
It seems like a simple enough question, but few people seem intent on asking it. Hell, even I had trouble describing my feelings on the matter until Bhagpuss came right out in the comments last time and proclaimed the emperor nude:
[Crowfall] might turn out to be a good game. In no way will it be anything I would recognize as an MMORPG.
In the Kickstarter video, the devs state that Crowfall is a marriage between a strategy game with a defined end-state and an MMO. However, most of the MMO community seems fine in describing it as a straight-up MMO. An MMO with… non-persistent worlds. Divided into servers. That end via victory conditions. Which sends you back to the Lobby, cough, Eternal Kingdoms.
Let’s call a spade a spade: Crowfall is Alterac Valley. With Landmark bolted on.
PvP focused gameplay? Check. Victory conditions? Check. Gather resources? Check. Instanced worlds? Check. Persistent characters that progress in levels? Check. Defined beginning, middle, and end? Check, check, and check.
The analogy isn’t perfect, of course. You don’t bring out your Gnome bones or whatever outside the individual AV match… unless you count Honor and/or Reputation as resources (which they are). But my point is that Crowfall isn’t an MMO unless you happen to extend that definition to encompass a lot of lobby-based games. Such as, I dunno, League of Legends. Or Clash of Clans, even. Or, you know, every other lobby-based online game out there.
I’m not suggesting that Crowfall will be bad because it’s not an MMO. In fact, it might precisely be because it’s not an MMO that Crowfall avoids all the traditional pitfalls of the genre. As SynCaine points out though, there are all sorts of other problems that can occur once you start dealing with defined, close-to-zero sum competitions. What motivation is there to continue fighting a losing battle when another server is a click away? Hell, if the devs aren’t careful, the whole “multiple passively trained alts” thing could resemble P2W considering you could swap your losing alts for one on the winning team. Then again, everyone already has experience with these sort of issues in, you know, battlegrounds in other MMOs. So perhaps it won’t be that big a deal.
If you enjoyed old-school Alterac Valley though, Crowfall seems like the MMO game for you.
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.
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.
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
There have been a number of gaming developments in the past week, but I find them difficult to write about. First, because I remain distracted with the whole television vs projector search. Indeed, I went from 98% gung-ho for a projector to finding out I could get a 40″ TV for ~$205. For such a value-crazed individual as I am, it’s tough to imagine a better deal. But, projector, man. I could be playing Shadow of the Colossus on my wall, instead of on a TV a mere CD-length wider.
Secondly, I just don’t know how to feel about some of these news items.
For example: H1Z1. Much has already been said about SOE reneging on their promise of no P2W shenanigans, which the airdrops certainly were. Originally. The airdrops have since been nerfed to basically have a 10% chance of containing a pistol or shotgun, so… now what? Do we pack up the pitchforks and go home? Or do we stick around and stab some things since we’re here?
One of the terms being thrown around regarding the airdrops is “Pay 4 Content,” in the sense that buying an airdrop means luring other players to come fight you and/or others for supplies. I find it difficult to argue with that bit of cash shop jujitsu. Similar games like Rust already have random airdrops, so is there much of a difference beyond one’s ability to “advance the timer” in H1Z1?
Framed like that, it almost sounds cool. “This is boring – let’s shake things up a little.” If airdrops were exclusively a crafted or rare lootable resource, I doubt anyone would drop them out of boredom; the eccentric players would get one or two at most, instead of the effectively infinite amount they have under this scheme.
Aside from airdrops, I have been following the other bits of news from the game and it reminds me of why F2P is bad: it engenders cynicism and paranoia. For example, the looting system was described this way:
The lot [sic] system is very intelligent. It keeps track of where all the items are in the server and balances loot spawning accordingly. If everybody is all looted up and hoarding loot, then it’s time to hunt some players or steal from their stashes.
When a player logs out, the server knows that there is now less potential loot on the server and will begin spawning more. When a player logs in and puts the server over it’s limit, the server will stop spawning loot (of the kind that the player has) and you’ll need to begin fighting for it.
The first thing I thought of was: of course your looting system would be like this in a F2P cash shop game. Self-sufficiency isn’t profitable. Smedly was more than forthright in explaining the PlanetSide 2 implant nerf was intentionally done to squeeze extra cash out of players “to keep the lights on.” How would you trust any design decision under such a rubric? Your options are to imagine that SOE wanted a gritty, The Road-esque survival game with few resources, or… they’re just another exploitative F2P developer out to make a quick buck. I sure as hell don’t believe that there is a legitimate game design reason why my Town Hall takes six real-world days to upgrade in Clash of Clans, for example. Nor do I believe that Candy Crush’s candy placement/generation is entirely random either.
In the meantime though, it appears looting is getting buffed along with a number of other action items. The game is Early Access, which makes it difficult to feel justified in one’s outrage. This sort of thing is what Early Access is for, right?
Speaking of Early Access, there seems to be some internet consternation in regards to Blizzard charging $40 to get into the Heroes of the Storm Beta. Apparently, if Blizzard copies what everyone else is already doing, then… uh… er, isn’t that the standard Blizzard MO? People also seemed to have forgotten that paying Blizzard for Beta access already happened: the Annual Pass that granted Mists of Pandaria Beta access. While the Annual Pass was also tied to a “free” copy of Diablo 3, I know more than a few WoW players who bought it specifically for the Beta access.
The chances of Blizzard charging for HotS beta access having an effect on any other developer’s decision to charge for beta access is less than zero. Between Kickstarter and Early Access, the days of a privileged beta have long-since died. And even before those programs, people were selling GMail invites on eBay for hundreds of dollars. Beta access has value whether you choose to believe it or not, and I don’t begrudge these game companies cutting out the middle-man. As long as, you know, they slide me a few extra keys.
Finally, The Elder Scrolls Online has dropped its subscription and went Buy-2-Play. While such a scheme is dubious ethically, this sort of payment model trajectory could be a way out of the otherwise unfortunate design trap of $60 million MMO budgets for ~150,000 player audiences. Obviously these companies would prefer a million-plus subscribers, but chances are they wouldn’t be able to get their investment back if they released with B2P, or developed the game under a lower budget at the start. It sucks for the early adopter, of course, but life has always sucked for them.
We’ll have to see how this move plays out for TESO. The game has never been on my radar and more or less remains that way currently, even though I very much want Skyrim 2. When I start seeing it on sale for $20, perhaps I will take a closer look.
Keen has a post up on the nature of F2P that, at first blush, reads as a truism. Namely, that one should be suspicious of any F2P title – after all, if the developers thought it were a valuable product, they would be pricing it accordingly.
Why do we have to pretend games are free or better yet that they have to be free in order for people to want to play them? MMO gamers are capable of identifying whether a product is worth being paid for or not. A good product will sell. A poor one will not.
This prescriptive sentiment has always bugged me. In one of the comments someone else asserts:
A great product will sell itself.
These all read as tautologies to me. How do you know if a game is great? It sells itself. And games that sell themselves are great, by definition.
…except we all have examples of underrated masterpieces, and garbage that sells millions of copies every year. Unless we are ready to admit that Star Wars Galaxies was terrible and Candy Crush Saga is one of the best videogames of all time, we need to decouple a game’s quality from its sales performance. There is correlation on a good day, but just as often there is not.
Similarly, the trend towards F2P is not necessarily one of naked greed and cynicism. I will be the first to admit that I prefer the antiquated “buy the box” or subscription models, as I believe it properly aligns developer incentives (i.e. make better content vs more cash shop items). But in 2015, there is one reality every developer must face:
1) F2P competition exists.
If you are all set to release a subscription-based MOBA in an environment where League of Legends still exists, you are going to have a bad time. The same is true for subscription-based MMOs these days. It is easy to claim that Wildstar (etc) failed not because of the subscription model, but because it wasn’t good enough to justify a subscription model. But that still sounds tautological to me. “If the game was good, it would not have failed.” Or to shorten it: “If it were good, it would not be bad.”
In the present MMO environment, it isn’t enough to simply be good – one has to be as good or better than all the alternatives, many of which are F2P. This is especially salient in MMOs considering the social dynamics are pretty much the only reason why you would continue playing the game. We can imagine a scenario in which the perfect (to you) MMO is released… but it ends up as a ghost town, and subsequently loses most (or all) of its value.
Which makes this part of Keen’s post a little ridiculous:
Charging for a game is absolutely acceptable, and it won’t dissuade people from playing.
Of course charging a subscription or box price will dissuade people from playing, else lowering prices would not generate any increased sales. Obviously there are people out there willing to purchase $60 titles on Day 1; what is less obvious is whether there are enough. Unless you are willing to settle for Minecraft, most MMOs are released with $60+ million price-tags which need to be recouped by volume. Populations in the 100,000 range simply can’t cut it anymore, nevermind the negative social effects of low server concurrency. It is quite a pickle that you place MMO developers in when they either need to craft a more valuable product than WoW (etc) or go with an extremely low-budget project… which will still be called a failure anyway due to low sales volume. “A good product sells,” remember?
Overall, I do think the warning vis-a-vis F2P games is sound – there is no payment model better suited to erode consumer surplus than F2P. And there are certainly a million and one examples of very bad, very cynical F2P cash-grabs. But I do not agree that good games necessarily sell (or sell themselves), I do not agree that sales is necessarily an indicator of quality at all, and I would suggest that developers have many perfectly valid reasons to “give their product away” even if they could have charged for it. In fact, they very well may have to these days, just to get enough warm bodies in the door to achieve the social critical mass that MMOs require.