Going in Blind

Now that enough time has past since GenCon, allow me to admit to a little secret: I don’t actually like card/board games that much. Crazy, right?

My issue with these games have nothing to do with their mechanics or pieces, so perhaps it’s a little misleading to say that I don’t like them. What I actually don’t enjoy is learning a new game in a competitive environment. I have no problem with the inherent randomness of rolling dice or drawing cards, but having to make blind decisions based on rules I’ve been introduced to moments ago? It always feels horrible to me.

One of the evenings after GenCon, the group retired to a hotel lobby to play Ladies & Gentlemen. The game itself was utterly fascinating in the way it effectively kept 9 people engaged 100% of the time without any awkward waiting for everyone else to take their turn. You pretty much have to have a minimum of 7 players for it to be fun (three teams + the Mistress), but it’s definitely a game I would recommend.

Unfortunately, I lost by two points. Not even “my partner and I lost”: me specifically. Because during one of the early turns I bought a purse (I was a Lady, of course) that was worth two points… but due to a rules misinterpretation on my part, it could not be counted as part of my “outfit score” at the end. And nearly three weeks later I am still stewing about it. Not because I lost, but because I lost for a really dumb reason.

Same deal back when I was learning to play Dominion with friends. I understood the rules for the most part, but it wasn’t until Game 3 or so that I began to understand the cadence, the rhythm behind the game. Which cards were better than others, the tension between buying more cards and diluting your own deck, the power of trashing certain cards, and so on. I went from the guy blindly spamming the A button in Super Smash Brothers to Sheik, nightmare princess. Until I get halfway down the mastery route though, I have close to zero fun playing these games, friends notwithstanding.

“Just go with it.” NO U. I’d rather flip a coin than make a blind decision, because at least with the coin we can all acknowledge that there was no actual choice involved. I will lose Risk, Texas Hold’em, and a dozen other card/board games graciously all night because I clearly made meaningful choices (or risk assessments) that did not pan out. A blind choice has no meaning to me, and a choice is blind until I fully understand the choice’s place in the full context of the game. Which, as you may imagine, is hard to do when you are playing it for the first time and have no reason to ever own it yourself.

#GamerGate

If you are confused as to what this #GamerGate thing is… you are not alone. Because it really isn’t one thing any more, but a series of things that have all sort of been mixed together. For a summary of ongoing events, I recommend this Forbes article. In the meantime, I wanted to touch on the three main elements in reverse order.

Gaming Journalism

I pretty much agree with the recent Slate article titled “Gaming Journalism is Over.”

The attacks on the press have ranged from well-reasoned to offensive to paranoid, but the gaming journalists unwisely decided to respond to the growing, nebulous anger by declaring that “gamers” were dead. Such articles appeared concurrently in Gamasutra (“ ‘Gamers’ are over” and “A guide to ending ‘gamers’ ”), Destructoid (“There are gamers at the gate, but they may already be dead”), Kotaku (“We might be witnessing the ‘death of an identity’ ”) and Rock, Paper, Shotgun (“Gamers are over”), as well as Ars Technica (“The death of the ‘gamers’ ”), Vice (“Killing the gamer identity”) and BuzzFeed (“Gaming is leaving ‘gamers’ behind”). These articles share some traits in common besides their theses: They are unconvincing, lacking in hard evidence, and big on wishful thinking. A good number of them link to an obscure blog post by academic Dan Golding, “The End of Gamers,” which argues, again without evidence, that “the gamer identity has been broken” and that the current unrest “is an attempt to retain hegemony.” Kotaku writer Nathan Grayson linked to a similarly obtuse piece of academic argot (“ ‘Gamer’ is selfish … conservative … tribalistic”), which in Grayson’s words “breaks down the difference between ‘gamer’ as a manufactured identity versus loving games on multiple levels.” I’ve written essays comparing games to the work of artist Kurt Schwitters and poet Kenneth Rexroth, and even I can’t muster this level of vacuous self-importance on the subject.

Returning to the real world, the biggest problem with all these claims is that they are demonstrably untrue. A quick glance at financials shows that “gamers” are not going anywhere. If “gamers” really are dying, no one told the marketing departments for these publications, which continue to trumpet their “gamer” demographic to advertisers. What is going on instead is projection. As long as these journalists held a monopoly on gaming coverage, they could maintain a dismal relationship with their audience in spite of the fact that “most games coverage is almost indistinguishable from PR,” in the words of disaffected game columnist Robert Florence, who himself wrote about corruption in gaming journalism before quitting Eurogamer. But all that’s changing with the rise of long-form amateur gaming journalism and game commentating on YouTube and Twitch.tv, the latter of which was just bought by Amazon for $1 billion as the gaming press was declaring the end of gamers.

I am not entirely sure whether there is anything to add to that.

Well, I guess I will say that this “reckoning” (assuming anything at all actually changes) was a long time in coming. After all, how long have we existed with a review rubric in which numbers 1-6 did not exist on the 10-point scale? Professional gaming journalism simply doesn’t occur without the “charity” of the game developers’ review copies, or access for interviews, or any number of similar perks that understandably evaporate into the ether the moment an honest reviewer costs the company tens of thousands of sales. I was given a free Press™ pass for Darkfall: Unholy Alliance, but do I anticipate another such email from Aventurine? No, I do not. Unless perhaps I’m such small fries that their PR person doesn’t bother purging the rolls. (Assuming they still have a job.)

But even these small perks are becoming increasingly irrelevant in an age of paid Alphas and Steam Early Releases. With the notable exception of Hearthstone, I pretty much have had the same access to the games I have written about as anyone who reads the posts. Obviously, “real” game journalists get all-expenses paid trips to conventions and hands-on impressions with AAA games that might be coming out, but the margin between gatekeeper and gamer is narrowing. You don’t need to trust an established game journalist as to whether the latest release is worth $60 anymore, assuming you could trust them in the first place – just play the alpha/beta/early release yourself.

Indeed, at this point the most valuable person in gaming is whomever is out there telling you that a given game exists at all.

Who Are Gamers?

If I were being a purist, I would argue that Bhagpuss’ inadvertent definition is best:

And that’s probably at the root of why I don’t identify as a Gamer. It’s not an age thing. It’s a prestige thing. After university, where having the high score on Galaxians was something to be envied, I rarely encountered any social situation where identifying as a Gamer wouldn’t have been socially damaging.

In other words, you are a Gamer if you say you are a Gamer, accepting all the consequences of the admission.

I will admit a certain level of envy for the gamers just now entering high school, as they will likely not experience near the abuse that my generation (and older) endured when gaming was the reserved domain of nerds and outcasts. No doubt it was the same for comic book readers and others. There is indeed a sense of belonging that occurs amongst a persecuted group, and yes, identity. However, any sense of diminishment by widespread gaming acceptance is purely psychological. And, frankly, backwards.

Your identity as a Gamer should be tied to your unashamed passion for games. Full stop. Anything extra is a separate, superfluous identity you tacked on after the fact. “I liked this thing when it was hard to do so.” Great… so you are a Gamer and a Pariah. Do you want a cookie?

Zoe Quinn, Anita Sarkeesian, etc

Nope.

Last Word

There really is no conclusion to this post, other than a rather mild surprise as to how much has melted down in the past three weeks or so. Seven gaming publications basically simultaneously asserting their readers no longer exist (or are horrible)? Who the shit has the time to browse internet articles about games but Gamers? Hell, I didn’t even play a game today due to reading gaming forums and writing this post.

Nevertheless, gaming journalism is one area in which I believe a total breakdown in “the establishment” will have a good outcome in the long-run. I mean, right now we have highly politicized real-world news monopolies (Fox vs CNN vs MSNBC) that only serve to insulate and divide people from alternate viewpoints. That’s bad. But the same thing really can’t exist in the gaming world because we ultimately play the games. If the game is shit, it’s shit, no matter who told you it was roses. And now you have 10,000 alternative voices that will admittedly likely coalesce into a few power-brokers, but again, reality will be the final arbiter.

Wildstar Megaservers

The big announcement by Carbine on Tuesday was: server merges megaservers!

In the near future, we will be implementing Megaservers for WildStar.

Going the Megaserver route means that we vastly increase server capacity allowing for greater critical mass of our player base, resulting in more people, more groups, more activity and more raids… more of everything that makes WildStar so fun. The Megaservers and their increased player capacity will give fans more options to group up and enjoy WildStar with friends and other players for a long time to come.

Of course, when they say “more people,” they really mean “putting the few people who are left all in the same box.”

Perhaps that is a bit uncharitable, considering I have no metrics to point to in regards to the health of the game. All that I know is that I haven’t played since June despite having paid for July’s subscription cost via in-game money. My interest really waned around the mid-30s when I discovered DPSing on the Medic was borderline masochism whereas other classes breezed (and continue to breeze) through. Then there were all the trips at the end of July/beginning of August, then the guildies that came over on Day 1 unsubscribed, and it turns out I never set up a recurring payment anyhow.

But back to Wildstar, I do believe this is another indication that servers, in general, are an anachronism of a bygone age. And good riddance – I have been calling for their removal since 2011. Every thing that people traditionally enjoy about servers (getting to know people, server pride, etc) are all actually symptomatic of artificial social barriers. Yes, megaservers mean that player interactions tend towards the LFD default of asocial behavior, but is that price worth paying when you intentionally divide and hinder real-world relationships? Amongst my gaming group, two of the six people who bought Wildstar ended up on a specific PvP server. I rallied the others to a RP-PvE server, because A) I can’t be bothered with PvP servers anymore, and B) I knew some bloggers were going to be on it.

Maybe we would have all quit playing anyway, but it nevertheless feels like a pretty stupid problem to have in 2014.

Along with the general megaserver news, Carbine also hid a few other interesting changes. For example, the FAQ mentions the introductions of last names:

What happens if two characters from different realms have the same name?

Along with the Megaservers, we will introduce character last names. Each characters will have a unique name comprised of a first name (this is your existing character name) and a last name separated by a space. In the character select screen, you will have to choose a last name before entering the game. You will be limited to a total 30 characters including the space.

I am still pretty sure that Guild Wars 2 has the best naming system in any MMO I have played, insofar as it simply allows you to use spaces. Don’t want a last name? Don’t make one. Or make a goofy phrase name. Or not. Unfortunately for Wildstar players, it certainly appears as though you will need to enter something in the last name field whether or not you wanted one.

By the way:

Although we’re far enough in the process to begin talking about it, we are still some ways away from the Megaservers going live. One of the things we’re doing to make the wait easier is that as of this post going live, we have put free realm transfers in the game for all players.

I am not entirely sure whether this will mean that you can realm transfer from PvE to PvP or vice versa (I am pretty sure there was a restriction at some point), but it is worth noting.

Also of note: you will be able to roll both Dominion and Exile characters on the same server.

So there it is. Megaservers. I sort of dislike the “3-monther” pejorative, but Wildstar has been out… for three months this week.

I Miss Ghostcrawler

There, I said it.

Luckily for all of us, apparently the people of the LoL forums occasionally goad him into talking about WoW design. Here are some of the bits I found most interesting:

Was there a specific wow example that you think changed the balance too much? Whether you meant to shift the game that way or not, it seems like the playerbase thinks this has happened.

If I had to point to one controversial change, I’d say that in vanilla and BC to a lesser extent, there were many specs that weren’t really viable for PvE or PvP. We felt like they needed to be viable in order to justify being in the game, and we were reasonably successful in getting all of them much more competitive. I’ll be honest that there were times when there was still one dominant PvP spec, one dominant PvE spec and one more-or-less dead spec per class, but we did get a lot closer than ever before, especially in the most recent expansion. (And that was the team that accomplished that — I take very little credit.)

So why was this direction controversial? One, it was just flat out harder to balance since there were more variables. It led to all sorts of religious debates such as whether pure classes “deserved” to do more damage than hybrids. In order to guarantee that a particular class or spec wasn’t mandatory for raiding or Arenas, we had to share utility among more classes. (One example is shaman were no longer the only ones to bring Bloodlust.) This did homogenize classes, and some players were understandably not excited about that direction. I’m not sure of a better approach though. Maybe WoW should just have had 10 classes and not the 30 that different specs brought. Maybe some specs should have just stayed dead. I still think about this a lot.

As someone who mained a Paladin throughout TBC, I am a little biased against the whole “leave dead specs in” design. I was not a particular fan of Paladin healing, which left… precisely zero viable PvE/PvP specs for me for most of that expansion. Hell, Illidian as a raid boss was entirely designed around having a Warrior tank. And don’t get me started on how Retribution was only viable as a DPS option on Horde side (Seal of Blood was Blood Elf specific). Paladins ended up being 5-man tanking kings by the end of TBC, but I still remember the growing pains into of Ulduar in which General Vezax basically meant I had to level up a Death Knight alt just to main-tank it.

Still, I almost wonder how a “just 10 classes” design would work. Perhaps like Guild Wars 2? Or would there simply be tanking classes and healing classes?

Do you ever regret opening the game up to be more casual? Instead of taking the kind of direction you are with league?

Different approaches work for different products, and I don’t want to second guess the WoW team. Let’s just say that after working on Age of Empires and World of Warcraft for a total of 16 years, it’s really refreshing to work on a game where I don’t have to worry whether someone’s grandmother can pick it up or not.

Would like to see GC’s grandmother (or mother or father or brother etc) kill Heroic 25m Siegecrafter Blackfuse!

Blackfuse is not the standard by which most of the game is designed. It’s memorable in fact because it’s so much harder than 99% of what you do in the game. Very few players even try (though it is a great fight). You don’t wipe 100 times leveling up. Few players quit running dungeons because they’re too hard. In much of the game, death is unlikely and not much of an obstacle when it does happen. That’s just the way the game was designed and the way nearly all players experience it. I’m not even commenting on whether I agree with that philosophy or not, but it was the philosophy.

Regardless of whether anyone’s grandmother can beat Blackfuse or attain Challenger tier is really besides the point. The points (and these are facts, because I was on the staff of both dev teams) are:

1) WoW spends a lot of effort to make sure almost any player can pick up the game, learn the ropes, level to 90 and even raid if that’s their interest. LoL spends almost no effort making sure almost any player can pick up the game. It does expend some effort to make sure that players who self-identify as gamers can pick up the game.

2) As a result of these efforts and different definitions of potential audience, WoW has a much broader audience than LoL. That’s fine. Different strategies work for different games.

My point was that I spent a lot of development time on both Age of Empires and WoW trying to make the games approachable to a wide audience without compromising the game design. I don’t have to do that anymore, which is s nice change of pace.

Well that’s certainly a confirmation of a lot complaints about WoW’s difficulty curve in solo content.

I love WoW but if not for heroic raiding, I likely would have left a long time ago.

I’m a heroic (mythic) raider. That’s how I fell in love with WoW. But they can’t sustain the game alone. (Source)

There’s a widespread misunderstanding that most people even want to be “brought up.” Everyone has the tools and capability to do anything. How many do it? (Bashiok)
We thought in Cata that we could entice players to rise to the occasion to do harder content. But, you know, some players just said that’s not why they play the game. More power to them. (Source)

The notion that gaming exists (entirely or in part) as a means to improve the skills of the player is a topic all its own, but let me briefly say: that’s dumb. Games are entertainment products. Some people are indeed entertained by honing their skills and seeing increases in finesse. But in many ways that is ultimately a zero-sum endeavor – being “too good” eliminates a wide swath of potential games for you on the one end, and the limits of your own physical abilities removes games from the other end. Meanwhile, everyone can experience, say, character progression at any level.

In a game entirely based around competition, sure, go ahead and “train” your players. Some of us just want to press some buttons, experience a little escapism, and/or need an excuse to (virtually) hang out with online friends and do things together.

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)

Man, I always supported you with WoW changes and felt really bad when you left, but that WoW comment… ouch.
We updated Elwynn Forest twice while I was there to make the game accessible. It was a lot of work. There are very hardcore aspects of WoW but there are also casual ones. Catering to both (or all) is a big challenge. That’s all I meant. I earned a reputation for “dumbing the game down” which is bizarre to me. I was countering that supposition. No offense intended.(Source)

I’m reading a lot of comments confusing accessibility with difficulty. Learning to play WoW is accessibility. Raiding is difficulty. WoW’s intent when I was there (I can’t speak for it now) was to appeal to a wide audience. Developing for a wide audience is very hard. Ulduar (my favorite raid) had two raid sizes (and optional hard modes). After that we added more difficulty tiers to broaden raiding appeal.
Is that something you didn’t want to do?
You can argue it exposed more players to the fun of raiding, but might have diminished the psychological reward of doing so. Raids also self nerf over time as players gear up, and we did across the board nerfs as well. So dedicated players would eventually get to see the content. The change was more about whether players deserved to see new content when it was new vs several patches later. (Source)
Adding multiple tiers per raid is more work. Appealing to a broad audience is more work. For once in my career, I don’t have to do that. (Source)
People struggled through bad design and confused it with mastery of difficulty.
There also was very little concept of damage meters or optimal rotations in Molten Core. The audience matured. (Source)

The raiding bit was interesting, but the fact that the very fundamental 3D interface being an issue is… illuminating. The things was take for granted, eh?

What by your experience are the constant things that come up that make learning a game hard?
1) Identifying the goal, 2) Understanding the controls, 3) Realizing where the fun is going to be. I mention that third point because too many tutorials strip away too much fun out of fear of burdening a new player.
Hand held guidance vs joy of discovery and freedom. Can`t have both.
Yes, but you can make the hand held guided part fun. Maybe you can see a dragon even if you have no business fighting one yet. (Source)

Explained another way, when you see a big drop off in players after only a few minutes then they are probably very confused. Players can’t usually tell if a game will be fun that quickly, but if they have no idea what’s going on, then they may quit. You see this a lot when casual players can’t mouse look, a skill second nature to many core gamers. (Source)

Look, you can play a very demanding game casually or invest many hours in a simple iPhone game. WoW appeals / tries to appeal to many gamers who don’t fit the traditional gamer mold. League doesn’t go after those gamers. Simple as that. (Source)
I can mouse look, play WoW, and adventure games. Dont consider myself (hard)core gamer. Core/casual split seems so limiting
It is very limiting. However, when even game developers watch a brand new player struggle with controls it’s eye opening. (Source)

Alright, I’m good.

Still… see what I mean? Could someone point out where else we could read some rather frank discussions on the nuts and bolts of game design? Developer blogs are almost entirely marketing vehicles that only tangentially resemble the final product. I am not suggesting Ghostcrawler is necessarily best designer out there, or even a good one. He might not be the one we deserve, but he’s the one we need right now.

Indie Devs Are Kind of Assholes

Let’s play a game called “In what context would this ever be a good idea for developers to write on internet forums?” First up, Lead Engine developer for a recently Kickstarted 16-bit action-RPG Elysian Shadows:

You know, half of what you said was actually fairly useful, but then the other half went into opinionated, biased, tangential bullshit, and you lost me entirely. Bump mapping? Have you LOOKED at our Kickstarter? Our sprites are CLEARLY bump mapped, and they’re also specularly highlighted. There’s even a section clearly describing that. Our later screenshots are also all billboarded and are entirely aligned to camera-space. Your divine wisdom would have been appreciated considerably more if you had refrained from being a total douche in the end… I was actually going to ask for your email and talk development with you… But instead I think I’ll just head on back to Kickstarter and watch the money roll in for this abomination of an indie RPG coming to a Dreamcast near you! Funny, considering the majority of the backers are coming for the Dreamcast, then OUYA is doubling our funds from $150k to $300k. ;)

The correct answer is: none. I don’t even care that the actual context was a bitter vet dev expressing frustration that his/her own game went nowhere and even went on so far as to say “[...] your entire Kickstarter is everything I hate about “indie retro 16-bit RPGs [...].” That basically anonymous poster the dev was responding to? Nobody gives two shits about them thirty seconds after closing the tab. But the dev? I’m walking away from the comment exchange thinking to myself “hey, that Falco Girgis dude is an asshole – I sort of hope his game crashes and fails.”

Maybe that sentiment says more about me than anything else.

Regardless, what the dev gave up here was an opportunity to sell another copy of the game, perhaps demonstrate the competency of the team, and, you know, not be another asshole on the internet. We’re full up, dude, we don’t need any more.

But congrats on the game, or whatever. Maybe I’ll check it out in an Humble Bundle in which I allocate zero dollars to your team.

[Civ5] Starting to See

Okay, okay. I’m starting to see why everyone is all “one… more… turn” when it comes to Civ 5.

After I wrote the post on Wednesday, I sat down to what ended up being an unintentional marathon gaming session. On reflection though, I am not even entirely sure why. I mean, yeah, “one more turn.” But that was sort of because A) I did nothing of any meaning the last four turns, and B) something was actually occurring. I suddenly sat up in my chair, pointed at the screen, and said “No you fucking didn’t!”

He totally did.

He totally did.

Whoops, that’s actually a screenshot I took because I had no idea what was going on. Good on the Civ team for going the extra, multicultural mile there, but I’ve been playing against these computers for nearly 4000 years and I still couldn’t tell you who Harun al-Rashid or Haile Selassie are, where Addis Ababa is located, how a trade route even gets plundered, or why I should really care when I can make another Caravan in 2 turns.

It is sort of funny because I ended up in the same position I remember being in way back in Civ 2: running out of things to build and just clicking End Turn until the next technology is unlocked. Pretty early in the game my capital ended up being a Wonder Farm, pumping out colossus statues and Big Bens every 5 turns until that well went dry. Then I seemed to have missed the religion boat entirely, at least until the Missionaries started pouring in from the North, giving my cities ecclesiastical whiplash every few turns.

And then… goddamn Brazil ruined everything. Or more specifically my hopes of a cultural victory.

Fine.

There was blood.

There was blood.

It’s funny how a little unprovoked continental warfare suddenly increases your average Decisions-Per-Turn. I wasn’t able to muster enough forces to crush the last city – 107 Defense power, what? – but that’s fine. I got the time… until nukes.

Just a few more turns…

Civ Mistake

As you may know, I have an embargo of sorts on buying brand new games. Not only are new games more expensive, but there rarely is any benefit to buying it early – assuming you are physically capable of waiting for a week or two, you will have a lot more information about whether a given game lives up to your expectations or not. And even if you’re sure that it will be everything you dream it to be, it’s possible the game will be a bug-ridden, unplayable mess those first few days/weeks. Remember Fallout: New Vegas? Or basically any Bethesda game, I suppose.

So anyway, I pre-purchased Civilization: Beyond Earth.

In my defense, Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri was a seminal classic that still occupies a lot of my mindspace decades after the fact. Those quotes, man, those quotes. I still have a .TXT file on my computer that is full of profound nuggets of wisdom, many of which were transcribed from that game. Sure, most are real-world quotes that the game simply appropriated, but this was the means by which I was introduced to them for the first time. It sort of reminds me of how much Magic: the Gathering expanded my vocabulary and the fact that I experienced Moonlight Sonata by Beethoven for the first time in that bizarre intestinal parasite level in Earthworm Jim 2.

In any case, Beyond Earth was selling for $12.50 off on GreenManGaming. So… savings!

After re-watching some of the coverage for the game, it occurred to me that it looks a lot like Civ 5, which I have owned for months without ever having booted it up. And now that I have booted it up, I am beginning to sweat my decision a bit. Because, so far, my experience with Civ 5 is mirroring my experience with Crusader Kings 2 – namely as games that other people seem to enjoy way more than it seems likely or even possible.

Full disclosure: aside from Alpha Centauri, the only other Civ game I have played was Civ 2… on the Super Nintendo. I played the hell out of it and Alpha Centauri both, but these games aren’t my wheelhouse per se.

I did a sort of beginner’s match in Civ 5 and just started a second game on normal difficulty/Civ spread. With things approaching 1000 AD, I am sort of wondering when the fun starts. The problem from my perspective is that I don’t seem to actually be making any decisions very often. I’m perfectly fine playing the “long game” in strategy titles, but I’m not particularly fine with spam-clicking Next Turn for 200 years. Moving a War Chariot around looking for Barbarians isn’t exactly cutting it.

What I cannot quite figure out is whether this whether this is a sign of A) me doing something wrong, B) Civ 5 being a departure from prior games, or C) my own evolving tastes. I mean, I think it used to be that having a dozen cities was par for the course in older Civ titles, yes? Now I’m in the Classical age and just founded my 3rd city after some hemming and hawing. The beginner match I played was basically me rolling over my opponents militarily – with numerous interesting decisions to make each turn – but the warnings I kept getting every time I annexed a city and the penalties are leading me to believe that offensive units are only useful against Barbarians and Gandhi.

So, Civ 5 fans, am I doing it wrong? If it matters, I have all the DLC loaded already.

End of Justice, Valor in Warlords

I cannot imagine this is breaking news, but it certainly came to a shock to me:

Honor and Conquest definitely are not going away, just to clarify a misconception – you’ll still be earning those currencies through PvP and using them to buy your PvP gear.

What will be going away is Justice and Valor. Over time, they’ve moved away from their original purpose, and given how widely available they’d become (awarded from quests, scenarios, dungeons, raids, etc.), we’d rather return to the original universal currency: gold. The final values aren’t hooked up yet, but the old Valor rewards for completing your daily random dungeon or an LFR wing will be replaced with a hefty sum of gold, which should make something like the gold turn-in for a bonus roll seem far more attainable even for players who currently don’t have much gold.

Watcher went on to clarify:

Just to clarify, I’m not saying that players should expect to see a vendor with a full set of endgame gear for gold as a one-to-one replacement for the Valor vendors from Mists. For the initial Warlords content, Apexis Crystals will largely fill that role, and you can see most of that structure already in place in the Beta today.

I honestly don’t know what the hell Blizzard imagines they are doing.

The original thought I had was that Blizzard was going to remove all Justice/Valor points and related vendors, and then heavily lean on the Bonus Roll mechanics they introduced in Mists. Gold is indeed one of the methods you can use to get a Bonus Roll, but it is one of… five I think, and you can use a particular method once per week with 3 Bonus Rolls being the limit. It sorta makes sense from a design perspective insofar as the current Justice/Valor system has an awkward down-leveling that occurs every patch, with Valor turning into Justice, Justice items going down in price, issues with people banking dungeon currency, and so on.

The issue I have with this change is one of motivation. In a world where you are running dungeons for specific gear, what motivation do you have to run said dungeon after you have gotten your gear? There isn’t any. And… maybe that’s a good thing? Back in the day though, I would routinely farm dungeons on my tank characters (instant queues) specifically because I could earn currency to get raid-level upgrades that would help guild progression later. Without that carrot, I would queue for nothing, and the LFD system itself would that much worse off. Alternatively, perhaps it means that LFD would be stocked with people specifically farming for gear, e.g. the intended audience for the content, so maybe people would be more accepting of lower-geared strangers.

Then I remembered that Blizzard is still using alternative currencies: Apexis Crystals. So… they do have the equivalent to Valor points, but you don’t earn them in dungeon/raid content. Was this their solution to reputation grinds? I don’t know, I’m not in the beta. But all I can think of is: Frost Badges. You know, back in Wrath when there was a different raid currency for every tier. Because we sure as hell aren’t likely to be using Apexis Crystals for Tier N+1 vendor gear.

So now I’m back to having no idea what Blizzard imagines they are doing. I actually liked the Valor system, and I liked it all the way back when it was Badges of Justice in your inventory. Granted, it led to some targeted farming behavior like running Heroic Mechanar every day and weekly Kara farms, but at least it got everyone in groups out in the world. As someone would more gold than I would know what to do with, I’m not entirely sure what I would be doing in Warlords other than perhaps farming Apexis Crystals. Which is like farming Valor, except much easier to do by myself.

Nostalgia Level: Star Ocean 2

Just doing my nightly Kotaku crawl when I came across a Let’s Talk About Star Ocean 2 article. Holy nostalgia, man.

Okay, I don't remember this part.

Okay, I don’t remember this part.

The article itself was really talking about how bad the dialog/localization was in the original game (apparently remedied a bit by the non-digital, PSP-only re-release) which, like most things in 1999, I don’t remember being much of an issue. What I mainly remember is: sci-fi JRPG, action combat, 60+ hour campaign, Private Actions (a pretty novel method of character-building at the time), and 80+ endings. And those Skills. Good lord, those skills.

There was even an in-game Iron Chef sequence.

There was even an in-game Iron Chef sequence.

I keep thinking that if I had infinite time, that I would replay all these PS1 games, even if the experience itself would not quite be the same. It’s hard going back though. As the sidebar indicates, I’m sorta-maybe playing FF4 for the first time (started due to the Japan trip) and it’s tough getting past the “X and Y were bad game design decisions” sort of mentality. I can’t even imagine the field day I’d have with games like Star Ocean 2.

Still, I have some rather pleasant memories of that whole gaming era, which landed straight in my formative high school years. Star Ocean 2 doesn’t really come close to FF7 or Xenogears, but it ranks up there with the LUNAR series as being an unexpected delight.

Subscriptions Are Dead; Long Live Subscriptions

Tobold has a post up talking about the fate of the subscription model. Namely, that while TESO and Wildstar devs are heroically trying to swim against the F2P current, the hard numbers and future MMO releases paint a different, more bleak picture. As somewhat hilariously pointed out by commenter Mike Andrade in that post, this sort of subscription analysis appears to be a Tobold yearly August tradition, but nevermind.

Both Gevlon in the comments and SynCaine in a post come out of the gate with a rather blistering one-two retort: 1) maybe recent sub games are floundering because the games themselves are bad, and 2) where are all the F2P successes then?

Granted, SynCaine moved the goal-posts a bit by specifying “day-1 F2P,” when the facts of the matter are (likely) that subscription games that have made the F2P transition are only still online because of said transition. In other words, SWTOR and LOTRO and Aion and DDO and STO and TSW (etc) are perfectly valid examples of F2P success stories by virtue of those games still being online and profitable. That all of them would prefer the giant piles of initial subscriber cash isn’t really saying anything about the long-term sustainability of the model itself. Why would any of them start off F2P if it’s possible to not leave that money on the table?

But if we’re looking ahead, I suppose ArchAge and SOE’s flagship EverQuest Next being F2P might be potential candidates day-1 F2P success (however that ends up being defined).

The subscription counter-example a lot of people have been using is FF14, which frankly shocked me in terms of subscriber numbers. Apparently there are 2 million of them? If legitimate, that would rocket it past all non-WoW MMOs to be one of the most successful subscription games of all time. Of course, it sells for $15 on Steam every three weeks, there’s a sizable console market for the game (something not many MMOs can achieve), and it technically got a do-over that allowed it to “launch” with years of content instead of the normal zero. But still! That’s impressive.

Okay, actually FF14 has two million “registered accounts,” which is sort of like subscribers in the same way F2P games are “free to play.” Still, subscriptions! 500,000 people log on at least once per day! For now, anyway.

Ultimately, I think a lot of the subscription game musing is sort of missing the point. While there are subtle pressures involved when you look at a subscription game – worrying about getting your money’s worth even if $15/month is pocket change normally – I agree with people like SynCaine that say if a game is worth it, you’ll pay the money… to a point. Because when you are talking about MMOs, the quality of the content itself is almost a tertiary concern to retention. Don’t believe me? Then tell me how a game like WoW can get away with having zero new content from September 2013 to today and “only” lose around ~10.5% of its population. It’s the people, stupid. Yeah, there’s an underlying game space that needs to be entertaining enough to collect everyone in one spot and having fun during downtime, but how long is anyone really subscribing to a single-player game? You can have the most entertaining base game in the world, but if nobody is making those sticky social connections – perhaps because they already have social networks elsewhere – then they are just going to leave in three months anyway.

Frankly, the biggest issue with subscriptions are companies whom vastly overestimate their own popularity, and otherwise set themselves up for failure. If you budget your MMO such that you need 500,000 people paying $15/month just to survive, you’re going to have a bad time. The lower that floor is, the more space you will have to grow the audience later. Or, hell, just maintain the people you have currently.

So while I do not believe the subscription model itself is going anywhere, I do think that it’s only going to be particularly sustainable to those games which have tightly-wounded social pockets. Creating said pockets out of thin air is incredibly tough, but that’s not going to stop games like TESO and Wildstar from at least capitalizing on 6-12 months of bonus revenue they would not have otherwise had if they went with B2P and/or F2P.