In the midst of a bout of gaming ennui, I find myself coming back time and again to PlanetSide 2. The game has some serious structural issues – to say that it’s still in Beta is somewhat less of a joke these days – and there is every indication that a sustainable population might not be there for too much longer. I created characters of each faction back when you were unable to have multiple factions on the same server, but a series of server merges have resulted in all three being on the same one (out of two) NA server.
In fact, going by that website, Ps2 has gone from 28 servers worldwide down to… 5. My routine when booting up the game is to filter the four continent maps by Ally Activity, and only choose to play if one continent has more than three hexes with at least 24+ friendly player activity. It is… not guaranteed, even during EST prime time.
So why am I still playing at all? It’s a good question, and the only real explanation is this: the Phoenix Launcher.
My “main” character was initially a member of the Vanu faction, which is based around laser/plasma weapons. Each faction has access to “empire-specific” weapons that have no real analog amongst the others. Technically all non-NS weapons are unique, but the difference between the LMG that has more ammo vs the less-ammo-but-higher-damage vs the middling one without bullet drop is not all that great. The empire-specific weapons are a whole other ballgame though.
The difference between the empire-specific rocket launchers is perhaps the greatest in the game. The Vanu have a charge-up laser launcher that has basically zero travel time. The TR have a lock-on rocket launcher that fires five rockets in a row. And the NC? The Phoenix Launcher, which fires a camera-guided and steerable rocket.
I have “quit” PlanetSide 2 several times already, for a number of reasons. But lately I keep coming back for the Phoenix Launcher because it is about the most fun I have had in a FPS… at least in a while. Which is bizarre because only the Heavy Assault class can use the weapon, and it is not as though I spend all my time playing just that class. It’s like the mere possibility of my being able to steer a rocket up over cover and around the cliff the enemy tank is hiding behind is enough to get the juices flowing. I’ll repair the base turrets as an Engineer and play Medic to forward a base assault just to set up the opportunity later to ride some rockets around.
In the abstract, I clearly enjoy the base gameplay too. And that’s true. But without the Phoenix Launcher, that would not have been enough for me to justify my continued play.
I cannot quite decide if that is sad, or precisely the way things should be.
In doing the research for the last article, I came across this interesting August interview with Tom Chilton. It is a sort of “past 10 years, next 10 years” sort of interview, but here were the quotes I want to draw attention to:
Q. Each expansion clearly serves the game’s existing audience first, but there always appears to be a secondary goal of either driving new player sign-ups, or winning back lapsed accounts. Warlords of Draenor looks like it’s especially designed to win back lapsed players. Would you say that’s a fair assessment?
A. [...] We are also trying to make things easier for new players. We have an improved tutorial. We’ve definitely found over time that the players we’re getting now are far less familiar with the standard MMO-slash-RPG mechanics than the players we got years ago were.
Frankly, that’s the biggest difference in terms of our subscribership. It’s harder to keep the funnel of people coming in to offset, inevitably, people not playing anymore.
So we’re making a lot of improvements there, teaching people how to move their characters, how to look around, and how to turn their first quest in, because we’re seeing that’s where huge amounts of people drop out.
Back in September, I posted a similar Q&A session with Ghostcrawler who basically said the exact same thing:
I’d like to know what Blizzard considers to be the big barriers.
Well *I* consider the biggest barrier being it’s a 3D WASD game with a movable camera. (Bashiok)
I agree. So does a lot of data. (Source)
Back to the Chilton interview though, he makes a point about how… well, let me just post it:
Q. Going back to the subject of 10 years, and talking about changes in the subscribership, different playstyles and different expectations, have you seen a shift in your demographics?
Chilton: We certainly have. Our demographic has gotten a lot older over time. A lot of that is because we have a lot of players who’ve been with us for 10 years, and now they’re 10 years older than when they first started playing. Our age has shifted up over the last 10 years.
That has interesting implications in that essentially the playerbase becomes more casual over time. As people get older and have kids and careers, they have less time to spend on playing the MMO.
It definitely influences how we evolve the content and trying to make sure that there are good ways to engage with the game that aren’t massively time-consuming.
Now, it is a pretty well-tread argument that players get more casual over time, for exactly the reasons mentioned: you got older, out of college, kids, more obligations, and so on. But I find it a little weird when combined with the prior quote from Chilton insofar as most of the new players coming into WoW are having issues with camera movement and turning in quests. I mean, unless WoW is literally your first RPG, you would think that most everyone coming in would have experience with similar mechanics from literally any other RPG in the last 10 years.
All of which is leading me to believe that, perhaps, most of the new players coming into WoW are precisely older people who haven’t played many (or any) RPGs prior to this. It could almost be poetic, if the players who started playing 10 years ago (and kept going) are recruiting their now-older non-gamer peers into the game because those are the only people they know. Hell, you can almost imagine this as a geologic strata forming: the MMO layer being compressed by the MOBA layer of slightly younger players, followed by the Minecraft generation.
None of that really describes what’s going on with the FPS genre or console games, but it’s a convenient narrative I’m rolling with.
Adam of Noisy Rogue brought up an interesting point recently regarding the cancellation of Titan:
Nobody outside the Blizzard bubble knows what Jeff Kaplan is doing right now. Apart from him there are over a hundred other developers and designers that have been working on Titan for almost seven years. It’s a lot of talent. [...]
Hey, yeah, what are they going to do with all the people who were working on Titan?
So what we know is that Titan had 100 developers working on it last August, until it was slashed down to 30 when it “went back to the drawing board.” Mike Morhaime said they moved the slashed devs over to Diablo and the Blizzard MOBA. But then I got to thinking: wasn’t the dev count on WoW beefed up recently? Indeed it was, as reported on 8/25/13:
The team size has increased 40% and another 40% increase is planned, which will hopefully allow for a new content patch every month, a new raid tier every three to five months, and an annual expansion.
So the timeline makes sense that a lot of those Titan devs were moved over into WoW in addition to Diablo and the MOBA. But then I came across this Icy Veins interview with Tom Chilton from August 2014 (emphasis mine):
Q. You announced repeatedly that you would release content faster: “every 6 months”, “no more ICC”. Obviously, that did not really work out, so we were just wondering what caused it.
A. That is definitely fair criticism. We did a good job earlier in Mists of Pandaria, having the content come at a more frequent intervals, and certainly we had hoped to have Warlords of Draenor out a couple of months ago. The reality is that scaling up the number of people that we have, to work on multiple projects at once has slowed us down. Honestly, it should have not come as a surprise to us. We increased the size of the team by 50% and the majority of those people had never worked on World of Warcraft before or any other MMO, so it is really difficult for them to create content right away, without getting up to speed. So we ended up redoing a lot of the content that we were doing for Warlords to make sure that we would get it at the quality level that we would expect.
Now I’m not sure what to think. Did Blizzard hire a whole bunch of brand new developers for the WoW team? Were the 30 core devs left behind on Titan the only ones with WoW experience, e.g. Kaplan, etc? We do know that Blizzard is already designing the expansion after Warlords right now, so perhaps the new guys got relegated to Warlords and the core-crew is working on whatever Orcish masturbation fantasy is undoubtedly next (“Thrall’s child is all grown up and mad with power!”). I mean, Jesus, it’s been World of Hordecraft aside from that one brief period of time in Wrath. And it’s arguable that the Taunka and Horde Death Knight quests were far superior to what the Alliance got.
I’m not bitter or anything.
By the way, while I was
Googling researching this post, I came across this rather interesting picture:
This slide came from the Hearthstone fireside chat back in November 2013, with those numbers representing the team sizes of those three games at release. In other words, vanilla WoW had 60 people, Diablo 3 had 75, and Hearthstone 15. Supposedly Diablo 3 is in a better place these days, but it kinda tells you a lot about the relative worth of even Blizzard developers when you have 75 people collectively cranking out the clusterfuck of Diablo 3 on release. More is less, it would seem.
So, Shadow Kings: Dark Ages is a F2P browser-based game (there is also a mobile version) from Goodgamestudios that bills itself on being an MMO. I suppose that definition could work if we assume that games like Clash of Clans and Castle Clash and so on are MMOs as well. One thing that Shadow Kings does have over the others is a sort of world map which determines who you can attack rather than it being a random match-up.
One thing that is conspicuously and absurdly missing compared to other such titles however is, you know, combat. No, seriously, there is a planning stage for combat – allowing you to assign attackers and siege equipment to the left, center, or right flanks – but all actual combat is handled instantaneously off-screen in a generic battle report. You can use your mages for espionage or sabotage, split your forces to attack a city from three angles, give your troops ladders and battering rams, and the result is… this:
Without an actual visual combat system in place, all of the traditional trappings of this genre of game are exposed in sharp relief. For example, there is a city-building aspect to the game where you need to balance wood, rock, and food production to keep keep the war machine moving. But since you never actually see your city being attacked, the placement of buildings within the city is entirely irrelevant. Which means enemy city layout is irrelevant. Which makes the various troop compositions you can recruit largely irrelevant. Which leads you to question what the game bit is even supposed to be.
Near as I can tell, Shadow Kings is Progress Quest with a snappy app interface and copious amounts of in-game purchases to speed things up. There is a quest system to sort of guide your various actions, but it does not take too long to start running into build times measuring in the hours. Building takes time. Upgrading takes time. Recruiting troops takes time, sending them out to attack something takes time, combat is instant and off-screen, and then there is the return trip home.
In additional to the RMT Gems, Gold is another resource that is only generated when you “collect taxes.” You do so by picking a time interval from the given list, and then clicking on the Collect Taxes button at the end of the timer; leave it inactive too long and you will lose an escalating percentage of the amount you would have gained. In a bizarre (or dare I say novel) twist, you actually get rewarded more the shorter the timer happens to be. For example, right now I can collect 5g after 3 minutes. Or 15g at 15 minutes. Or 20g at 30 minutes. Obviously that is to encourage you to stay logged on to secure these funds, but that sort of runs counter to the entire rest of the game in which you are better off queuing a bunch of actions and either Alt-Tabbing to do something else or simply closing the Tab altogether.
It should also be noted that 5 hours is the longest time interval that you can collect taxes… for free. Picking 8.5, 12, or 24 hours as intervals to collect taxes actually costs Gems, with the latter being the equivalent of about $0.35 (assuming none of the frequently advertised Gem sales).
I remain completely and utterly amazed that a team of game designers could construct what could otherwise be a competitor for Clash of Clans/Castle Clash minus the one prevailing, absolutely critical component of player agency: combat. Arguably, there is really no game here. It is a creature of meat and bone with no internal organs. I am trying to imagine a company in which the art, music, and UI teams all finish their work (and it’s pretty good work) while the team in charge of the gameplay walked off the job. Even if it were something simple like watching your little dwarves wail on the walls for a few minutes, I feel like that might have been enough; I mean, beyond troop placement at the start of a battle, you don’t have any control over your dudes in Clash of Clans either. But with combat missing, there is really no context in which to place all the timers you end up having to wait (or pay) to wind down.
So… err… yeah. That’s Shadow Kings: Dark Ages in a nutshell.
There are a lot of tropes in RPGs that go largely unexamined, but I experienced one in Dragon Age 2 recently that seemed especially egregious: the impossibly unlikely encounter.
Now, you know how it is, you are walking around town and just so happen to stumble across a conversation between a woman looking for her son and guards clearly not interested in searching for him. What were the odds you would be walking by that one-minute exchange in the middle of a sprawling city? It’s a trope, but I can forgive that out of necessity; how else could you really set up such a quest organically, right? I’m not talking about those sort of encounters.
No, I’m talking about the part in Dragon Age 2 when I run across a band of Elvish assassins confronting a human along a desolate path on the Wounded Coast. The human is apparently a former werewolf who inadvertently killed the mother of the main Elf assassin, but the Warden from the first game has cured his lycanthropy. You get the choice here between letting the assassin finish the job, defending the man, or trying to shame the Elves into leaving. I did the latter, got paid 50 silver by the grateful man, and both parties left.
This wasn’t even a quest. It was just a goddamn throwaway encounter miles from any sort of civilization and/or rational explanation for how the two people could have met one another just in time for me to waltz by. It wasn’t like this dude was trying to assuage his guilt by watching the beach. As far as I can possibly determine, there was no reason for him to be there at all; he was not a trader, nor hermit, nor on the run. I would have been infinitely more sympathetic with my suspension of disbelief if this occurred in the city. Or in a cave he was hiding in. Or as part of a plot-line or rumor which suggested someone was looking for a former werewolf. Instead, this scenario gets more and more ludicrous the longer I think about it.
I mean, sure, most of the quests that I have seen in Dragon Age 2 so far seem rather unlikely. Who exactly is going to trust a complete stranger who was conveniently eavesdropping on your conversation in the first place? Actually, it might be fun for there to be an RPG in which all of these sort of tropes are subverted; some sort of deranged, manic dude cavorting into the middle of groups of people and “completing their quests” based on random snippets of dialog. But, man, that Wounded Coast encounter is on an impossibly absurd level of its own.
I spent about 10 minutes coming up with various clever variations on Titanfall and Attack on Titan, but alas.
Blizzard has killed Project Titan after seven years in development. That Polygon article is overflowing with choice quotes.
“We had created World of Warcraft, and we felt really confident that we knew how to make MMOs,” Morhaime said. “So we set out to make the most ambitious thing that you could possibly imagine. And it didn’t come together.
“We didn’t find the fun,” Morhaime continued. “We didn’t find the passion. We talked about how we put it through a reevaluation period, and actually, what we reevaluated is whether that’s the game we really wanted to be making. The answer is no.”
Some would certainly argue that Titan isn’t the only project they can no longer find the fun/passion for.
“Are we the MMORPG company?” he added later, in conclusion to that line of questioning.
Morhaime answered that last rhetorical question quite simply: “We don’t want to identify ourselves with a particular genre. We just want to make great games every time.”
Like… wow. (Err… no pun intended) That has “exit strategy” written all over it. And speaking of that:
Throughout the interview, Metzen and Morhaime suggested that the recent trend of smaller-scale Blizzard releases like Hearthstone and Heroes of the Storm has played a part in the company moving away from Titan. [...]
He explained that Hearthstone had helped the studio realize that they don’t need to fit themselves into the box of only making products of a certain scale.
I didn’t get the chance to mention it earlier, but Hearthstone hit 20 million players. Or “players,” whatever. It is still 10 million more than they had in March. While it’s tough to actually come to any sort of definitive conclusions about the significance of those numbers given how it’s a F2P game that is hitting mobile devices, it is clear that it wasn’t just a flash in the pan. If this analyst from CinemaBlend.com (…err) can be believed, Hearthstone could pull in $30 million in revenue this year… which is basically 14% of what WoW brings in yearly. Not bad for a team of 12-15 people.
Back to Titan though, being cynical is easy and mostly safe. However, I am beginning to agree with Gazimoff of Mana Obscura in that this might be the death of the super-genre MMO. “We won’t see another heavyweight MMORPG released by a major studio in the next two years.” I was going to say that EverQuest Next sort of proves that wrong, but that is probably a bit more than two years out, and who knows if it even gets released at all; Landmark might just cannibalize it, if it doesn’t cannibalize itself first. But surely there is something else… oh. Maybe not.
Whether you are celebrating the news – perhaps hoping that more tightly-focused niche MMOs will spring up in the vacuum “as they should be” – or lamenting the loss of AAA tourism, I do want to take a moment to mark the occasion. Because it is an end of an era, or another sign of it at the least. And while we can sit back and suggest that WoW “ruined” “real” virtual worlds like Ultima Online or Everquest or whatever, I do feel a bit sad to think that what we have is it. Specialization is great and all, but when I look at the ex-WoW guild member friends I have made, I see a group of people whom I have never consistently played any other games with. The “super-genre” WoW was pretty much the extent of our shared gaming interests; there is some tiny overlap here and there, but getting the hardcore Civ, the Team Fortress 2, and The Sims players all together as an officer core for a 5-year old guild was goddamn magic.
Titan was unlikely to have rekindled things for my disparate, dispersed cohorts, true. Sometimes things just reach their natural conclusions. And maybe there is something to be said about making friends with more similar interests in the first place. Still… I can’t help but feel a loss, somehow.
Prior to clicking this Kotaku article about Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, I had close to zero interest in the game. It’s not that I disliked the franchise or BL2 – I have 115 hours on the latter – I simply got extremely fatigued with the gameplay by the end. Which was just about a full year ago, apparently. Huh.
In any case, watching the 10-minute explanation trailer sort of reminded me why I liked the series to begin with. Maybe TORGUE and Hammerlock were never all that funny to you, and that’s fine. In fact, neither are all that interesting to me on their own as characters. But the writing. It’s not that it’s brilliant or anything, it’s just… utterly unique. What other game can slot in surprisingly tasteful BDSM and Nietzsche jokes into their gameplay videos? And it fit? There are a million other first-person shooters out there, but there is only one Borderlands.
Or two, I guess. And a third on the way. Hmm. I wonder what the intro song will be this time?
P.S. Not paying full price though.
The final tally for Microsoft’s purchase of Minecraft is $2.5 billion. Markus Persson’s (aka Notch) personal take is reported to be $1.8 billion.
What is almost more interesting though is his thought process behind selling at all:
[...] I’ve become a symbol. I don’t want to be a symbol, responsible for something huge that I don’t understand, that I don’t want to work on, that keeps coming back to me. I’m not an entrepreneur. I’m not a CEO. I’m a nerdy computer programmer who likes to have opinions on Twitter.
As soon as this deal is finalized, I will leave Mojang and go back to doing Ludum Dares and small web experiments. If I ever accidentally make something that seems to gain traction, I’ll probably abandon it immediately.
It is almost funny, in a way. Can you separate the making of games from the business of making games? One can imagine some hobbyist painter who inadvertently crafts a masterpiece… that simply stays in the attic for decades. Or a writer who simply creates a book for themselves. The process is what they desired, not the outcome.
But games? Like information, games yearn to be free. A game without players is incomplete. So while I can understand the sentiment behind Notch’s desire, it seems somewhat futile. Being a game designer does not make one a good entrepreneur, true, but once released a game takes on a life of its own.
I will admit that my first reaction was to be a little petulant over Notch’s payout, because $1.8 billion. But looking at Minecraft itself and how it got there… who can really complain? This isn’t a game that preys on the weaknesses of the human psyche with microtransactions and cash shops (in the base game). This isn’t a game built around its business model. This is Old School purity in which a game relied on its own merits to sell more units. Sure, there is merch and movie deals these days but the core of the game remains the same.
So… good on you, Notch. This sale puts you around #1013 on Forbes’ billionaire list. Or to put it another way, Minecraft single-handedly made you equivalent to 2-3 JK Rowlings. Or about a Gabe Newell and a half.
I wrote a post about Entitlement and the problems surrounding its (ab)use in gaming discussions back in 2012. Nothing has changed since then – I still consider anyone who uses it in a semi-serious way to essentially be Godwin’ing their own argument. What I did not expect to see two years later is “entitlement” to be even further warped as a pejorative to paint even those that desire parity in their games. Or presumably, by extension, anyone who has any desires whatsoever.
From Tobold’s blog:
Gamers have a strong sense of entitlement. In real life the answer to the question of why your neighbor is driving a nicer car than you is relatively obvious: He paid for it (or got it as part of his job contract). Most people are okay with that in real life. In a massively multiplayer online game many people are not willing to accept that somebody else has nicer stuff because he paid for it. It is one of the principal objections to the Free2Play business model that somebody else might end up with paid-for nicer stuff. And special editions are based on the same tactics of price segmentation that Free2Play games use.
The context of this quote comes from a larger discussion on the escalating price of “Founder’s Packs,” e.g. the extremely clever corporate jujitsu that resulted in people paying $150 for the “privilege” of alpha-testing even F2P games. Tobold’s larger points are that A) “too pricey” is subjective, and B) game companies are better off selling digital goods in their Collector’s Editions (as opposed to expensive physical goods) if it were not for the fact that “entitled” gamers don’t like that.
“Entitlement” clearly being a trigger word for me, I asked: “Is an expectation of parity now considered entitlement?” Tobold replied:
I have never met ANYBODY who expected or even wanted parity in a game. What people want is a system that is skewed towards their strong points. Thus the person who has more available time than money wants a game where you are King of the Hill if you spend the most time in the game. While the person who has more money than time would prefer if he could achieve things by buying them. Neither of the two wants parity.
The reason why expecting game companies to reward time more than money is entitlement thinking is because obviously the game company would much prefer your money over your time.
(That almost sounds like game companies feel entitled to my money, but nevermind.)
Now, it seems to me that he is making the accusation that people only like what games they are good at. Which… is a bad thing, I guess? There really cannot be any other possible explanation for your friends getting mad at you bringing real-world dollars into a game of Axis & Allies (or Chess, etc etc) other than taking away their advantage of more skillful play, right? Those entitled jerks… it’s all the same!
I enjoy parity in games. In fact, I expect it. Arguably the hallmark of any “game” is consistent rules that apply to every player equally (assuming the game isn’t based around asymmetry). If someone beats you in a fair game by virtue of better skill or strategy, who could legitimately complain? Even if they won by virtue of simply having spent more time playing the game, how could you object? Tobold and others may point out that some people have more time than money, but I do not know anyone who has 25 hours in their day. In contrast, the dollar amount anyone could have on hand is effectively unbounded. You could have $10, you could have $1,000,000.
Perhaps this disagreement comes from differing definitions of parity. Tobold in later comments suggests no MMORPG features parity because different people have different amounts of time to spend playing the game. This is not a dilemma to me – as I mentioned previously, the both of us have the same 24 hours in a day in which to allocate our time. I have zero issue with you receiving greater rewards (etc) for having spent more time playing the game than I. In fact, it sort of boggles my mind that this is even a point of contention. Is that not how any activity should inherently work? “You spent more time reading a book and got farther into than I did… unfair!”
I might be able to see where people could get angry about someone meeting or exceeding your own skillful play by simply repeating a low-skill activity for days and days. But even then, the results of your skill is self-evident: you achieved the result more quickly with less (wasted) time.
Bringing real-world money into a game is NOT analogous to either skill nor time. The amount of money any of us have is the result of an entirely different “game,” which operates on entirely different “rules.” It is like me getting an extra Queen in a game of Chess simply because I won a game of Checkers last year. Did that giant pile of real-world money give you the freedom to spend more time playing the game than me? That is both okay and irrelevant. The uber-rich guy, the 12-year old on summer break, the dropout college student, or the oil rig worker on his two weeks off all value the time spending playing the game equally for as long as they do.
Desiring parity in the games you play is not entitlement. Desiring that fewer companies tether their business model to the rules of the games they make is not entitlement. Desiring to play games you are good at is not entitlement. Desire is not entitlement. When you use the word “entitlement” as a pejorative, all you are doing is asserting that someone has unreasonable expectations about something, without actually bothering to offer an argument or explanation as to why it is unreasonable.