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Dust, Draenor, Destiny

The one bit of news out of CCP’s Fanfest 2014 that peaked my interest was Project Legion. Which is, for all intents and purposes, a rebooting of Dust 514 on the platform it should have been released on in the first place: the PC. I’m not actually sure a sandbox PvP/PvE hybrid shooter MMO is what I’m looking for anymore, but given I have continued to grudgingly slink back to PlanetSide 2 for my FPS urges, let’s just say that I’m not exactly opposed to new experiences. It should be noted that in that article, CCP basically states that Dust still has 100,000 active daily players, which is around 100k more than it seemed to have any reason to have last time I played.

Incidentally, NoizyGamer believes that this year or the last one might have marked the last year of consecutive EVE subscriber growth. That’s noteworthy specifically because the ~10 consecutive years of growth itself was noteworthy. And rather annoying to argue against with my MMO market saturation theories.

Speaking of bodies, WoW lost another 200k of them since last quarter, bringing the total to a mere 7.6 million. I’m not really sure what to think about this sort of thing anymore; at the moment, I’m leaning towards simple incredulity that there are 7.6 million people paying a subscription to a game that will be going on a full year without any new content. I mean, I too was that guy years ago, but that sort of shit doesn’t fly with me these days.

Speaking of questionable Activision Blizzard moves, the console-only FPS MMO Destiny is reportedly going to cost $500 million:

To put some perspective on this, the money being spent on Destiny is more than twice the amount EA reportedly spent on Star Wars: The Old Republic and a little less than double the $265,000,000 Rockstar paid to get GTA V made. The Reuters article cites analysts saying that Destiny will have to sell 15-16 million copies at $60 to break even. So, the final game has to make a very, very good first impression.

For reference, Borderlands 2 cost ~$35 million and sold 8.5 million copies as of February 2014. It’s worth noting that the first link estimates Destiny at $140 million, so it’s entirely possible that the $500 million is in reference to the entire 10-year franchise run that Activision Blizzard purchased from Bungie rather than the BorderHaloLands game we have on display.

Still… goddamn. This doesn’t even seem like the same ultra-conservative game company of a year ago, who didn’t want to branch out into the mobile space simply because the Top 10 games change every year. I’d like to imagine those executives with a fat Hearthstone egg on their face, but great handfuls of money make for surprisingly effective yolk removal.

First Impressions: Dust 514

After talking about this F2P title on and off for the most of last year, I decided it was about time to put my conjecture where my mouth is. Err… hands? You know what I mean.

After quite literally dusting off my PlayStation 3, I started the process of downloading the 1.3gb game. To kill some time, I started playing Journey while downloading Dust 514 in the background. I didn’t make it more than five minutes before stopping Journey and doing some research as to how I could take screenshots on the PS3 because damn. An hour later, I stopped looking at $150 video capture cards and finished installing Dust 514. Ten minutes later, I begin updating the game. Forty-five minutes later, Dust 514 finishes downloading and installing a patch larger (!?) than the entire original download.

Now, if it has not already been clear from historical record, let it be noted that I am not much of a console gamer. This was not always the case. In fact, all the way up until the end of the PS2 era, I was a console purist. With the notable exception of Balder’s Gate and the original Deus Ex, I felt like PC RPGs were cheap imitations of the holy JRPG (i.e. Squaresoft), which could do no wrong. In my prior life as a freelance RPG reviewer, I have 60+ “published” RPG reviews attesting to that fact; I even gave Planescape: Torment a below-average score because the combat system was bad.

I’m bringing this up to illustrate the fact that this entire console generation has left me behind until now. Or, rather, I left it behind. Although I was in college during the Halo heyday and thus have experience playing its first three iterations many times in the fraternity house, I never personally owned an XBox. Ergo, my skill at thumbstick shooters is abysmal. Give me a mouse and keyboard and I will shoot your aim-assisted face off any day. Ask my thumbs to do more than spam the Spacebar though, and I’ll have some rehabilitation issues.

Enough preface, let’s dive in.

First Minutes

God damn this game is ugly. This seriously looks like I’m watching a 480p Youtube video of someone playing Turok: Dinosaur Hunter. Yes, the Nintendo 64 version. Don’t get me wrong, it looks better than Darkfall, but it also looks like it was drawn entirely in watercolors on a soggy canvas. Or I’m looking at it through goggles filled with river water. My first red flag should have been the 1.3gb download, I suppose, although Skyrim was Skyrim with just 5.8gb. Then again, that was on the PC…

I made Azuriel Inanage a Gallente something something race, a decision based entirely on the look of the face mask. In my defense, the entire race decision seemed somewhat pointless considering everyone is in armor all the time, mercenaries can fight for any race, and you can train every race’s gear. I sat through several tutorial screens which showed me around the basic lobby interface, with its amusing “Would you like to learn more?” Starship Trooper prompts. They start out giving you 500,000 Skill Points and 250,000 ISK and then… basically drops you off at the pool.

Now, I still struggle with the judgment as to whether a game developer deserves a pass for this sort of design. Is it the noble “sink or swim” attitude, or is it “crunch time, we’ll fix it in a patch later” lazyness? I’m personally willing to muddle my way through a considerable amount of bullshit in search for that one kernel of fun, but that’s mainly because I’m a masochist at a minimum it becomes easy blog content. And I am not even really saying that Dust 514′s Skill/etc system is hard. It’s just… opaque. 100% function, 0% form.

You basically cannot spend Skill Points until you pay ISK for a Skill book that unlocks that specific Skill. So to start, I needed to purchase Skill X for Y ISK and then spend Z SP to unlock Rank 1. Some of the skills are “empty,” in that their sole function seems to be to sink ISK/SP by forcing you to rank up just for the privilege to access other skills. Others are more functional, like increasing shields by 2% per rank. The system seems to promote unlocking as many Rank 1-2 skills as possible (these ranks only cost 18k-36k SP), but you are gated pretty hard by ISK, at least at first.

So let’s go get some ISK.

It is worth noting, before I get into the outcome of my first few matches, how this game works. You start out with a few different loadouts with basic gear that you can always equip no matter what. Every other thing in the game, from weapons to side-arms to grenades to the very dropsuit you wear is a consumable resource. Meaning, each time you die and respawn, you lose everything you were wearing. Did you just buy some uber-gun but get ambushed at the spawn point? It’s gone now.

I suppose this is designed to evoke a feeling of risk and gravity as a counter-point to the more standard suicidal FPS inclinations. I wouldn’t say that I am completely risk-adverse per se, but I absolutely hate the feeling that I would have been better off not playing at all. Losing WoW Arena games back when hitting 1800 represented a huge leap in combat effectiveness, for example, felt brutal; there was no worse feeling than starting at 1780 Rating and then losing six games in a row. Dust 514 evokes that same feeling, as not only can you lose a bunch of purchased gear right away, but that gear also represents ISK you could have spent buying Skill books instead.

As it turns out though, those ISK concerns may be moot.

My first match was pretty bad, entirely due to my aiming like… well, like I was holding a gun using just my thumbs. It was a “Skirmish” map, which breaks down as a pretty standard cap and control game. At the end of the match, it turns out I received ~150,000 ISK for losing. Based on my experience thus far, the payout seems to be mainly based on time spent; the difference between a win and a loss seems to be around 50k ISK. Also, you can end up receiving “salvage” in the form of guns/equipment. I am still technically in the “battle academy,” aka the kiddie pool, but I would be surprised if you end up earning less out in the game proper.

Given how much ISK you get either way, any consumable equipment concerns are severely diminished. Even a top-tier assault rifle only costs ~11,000 ISK. There was not a full match in which I died more than 8 times, so I would still have turned a profit despite losing all those guns. Plus, presumably a better weapon would mean dying less in the first place. The value of a whole suit loadout is probably more substantial, but quibbling over the 700 ISK mid-tier guns suddenly seems silly. If this is the paradigm though, why bother with all the ISK nonsense to begin with?

Ah, right. Free-to-play.

Instead of purchasing items individually, you can buy blueprints which give you an infinite supply of them. These blueprints, assuming they don’t drop as salvage, can only be bought via Aurum, the RMT currency. Now, Dust 514 is probably cheaper in the scheme of things compared to, I don’t know, Planetside 2. But in this particular case, the game mechanics themselves feel a bit more insidious. Granted, it could just be my bias showing through, especially given how Dust 514 lets you preview the weapons or effectively “buy them” for significantly less than the Planetside 2 equivalent.

Honestly, I just don’t like consumable anything, even if I have more than I would ever need. I’m the guy still hesitating to use the stockpile of Elixirs while fighting the final boss. It makes no rational sense, but there it is. Ergo, I’m leery of CCP having my number, so to speak, when it comes to these blueprints. I’m not actually going to buy any, but I will feel bad all the same.

Anyway, those are my Day 1 impressions of Dust 514. Like always, I will stick with the game for a bit longer just to ensure that I give it as fair a time as is possible under the circumstances.

Interesting Move, CCP

Way back in February, I was quoting Bullshitter in Chief, David Reid, on how Dust 514 could make EVE “the biggest game in the world at the end of 2012.” There are only 33 days left in the year for this to be theoretically possible, but nevermind.

At that time (and still currently), my questions focused on the “what the hell were they thinking with a PS3 exclusive” angle. The related followup question was how CCP planned to muscle into an already crowded FPS marketplace with a completely unknown IP (the FPS portion anyway); free-to-play will only get you so far, if no one knows about you.

Well, with all the game console browsing I have been doing lately, I have a partial answer:

Product Features

Platform: PLAYSTATION 3 | Edition: 250GB Uncharted 3: Game of the Year
  • The new 250GB PlayStation 3 System, with a built in Blu-Ray player, can hold over to 1800 Games, 140 Movies, 99,000 Songs, and 40,000 photos
  • The PlayStation 3 system includes a free PlayStation Network membership for online gaming, streaming movies and music, and access to the PlayStation Store
  • UNCHARTED 3: Drake’s Deception Game of the Year Edition showcases Nathan Drake’s journey through new challenges and includes over $45 of Bonus Content
  • With a 30-day trial of PlayStation Plus, access your instant game collection and download from a free library of hit games. Save over $70 with the PlayStation 3/Uncharted 3 Game of the Year bundle
  • Dust 514, a free to play game available exclusively on the PlayStation Network, thrusts you into the explosive ground conflict of the EVE universe
  • Included with this PlayStation 3 bundle is a promotional code for your personal DUST 514 ordinance pack containing a 7-day active skill booster, a permanent Armored Personnel Carrier, an assortment of digital items, and 2,000 Aurum to spend on in-game gear, weapons and equipment. Over $30 in total value.

That’s right, somehow CCP got Sony to include $30 worth of item shop goods in the, er… PS3 Uncharted 3: Game of the Year bundle. Because nothing says sci-fi F2P FPS like a 3rd-person action game.

It is an interesting move, and certainly one that will garner some extra attention from whomever takes advantage of that bundle. I can’t help but get confused though, when it appears that the Dust 514 mention is missing from the other bundles like the 500gb Assassin’s Creed 3 and even the 320gb Uncharted 3 bundle. Did CCP only pay enough to get on the 250gb bundle instead of the 320gb? Surely there is no hardware difference, so did they just change their minds? Did Netflix out-bid them?

Regardless, I find myself even more intrigued by this unfolding drama than I was before. And, hey, now that I own a PS3 myself, I might actually go full gonzo and try it at some point.

File Under: Eyebrow Raised

The following two bits of random news caught my eye yesterday.

Breaking News: Cataclysm heroic dungeons were too hard, long

There is a new Cataclysm “post mortem” interview with Scott “Daelo” Mercer that just went up. It is a PR puff-piece so whitewashed they had to run over to San Bernardino to pick up more lime, but it did contain at least one visible kernel of truth in the pile of bullshit:

Q. What didn’t work out as planned or expected?

Initially, we started off the Heroic dungeons at too high of a difficulty. The difficulty level rather abruptly changed when compared to the Heroics players experienced at the end of Wrath of the Lich King. This major change caught many players off guard, and frustrated some of them. The difficulty also increased the effective amount of time required to complete a dungeon to a longer experience than we wanted. With the release of patch 4.3 we’re now in a much better place.  We’ve always talked about being able to complete a dungeon over lunch, and the Hour of Twilight dungeons get us back to that goal. End Time, Well of Eternity, and Hour of Twilight  all provide epic play experiences to our players, but at the real sweet spot of difficulty, complexity, and time commitment.

This is a drum that I have been beating for a week shy of a full year. It is not especially relevant these days – does anyone really care or disagree at this point? – especially given the Mists announcement back in October that heroics were going back to WotLK-style. But it is always nice to have some measure of extra closure on things.

Dust 514 is F2P, for real this time

Last month, I pooh-poohed David Reid’s speculation that EVE could become the biggest game in the world by the end of 2012 via the “tens of millions” of Dust players. While Reid is (one of) the most filthy, vile marketeer(s) in the history of videogames, the latest news via Eurogamer is that Dust is in fact F2P:

Eurogamer can megaphone that Dust 514, the exclusive PS3 MMOFPS that will exist within Eve Online, will now be free to download and free to play.

There was going to be a $10 to $20 cover charge for the game on PSN, but that has now been scrapped.

“It was a relatively confusing proposition,” executive producer Brandon Laurino explained to Eurogamer, “and we wanted to make it unambiguous that this is a free-to-play game.”

Laurino goes on to stress Dust won’t be Pay 2 Win – “There is no micro-transaction that you can do that gives you an unfair advantage over someone who hasn’t paid anything” – but a few paragraphs later this happens:

Items available include vanity goods to customise appearances with; boosters that save time, such as double skill point (SP) boosters; variants of weapons that aren’t necessarily more powerful – “side-grades” that look or play differently; services like character respecs; and lucky dip treasure boxes. “It’s what has emerged as best practice,” Laurino said.

Oh, I see.

I suppose there is room to say things like double-XP potions and the like don’t actually count as P2W. And maybe they will actually get the weapon side-grades balanced right. But… “lucky dip treasure boxes?” TF2 has those crates you unlock with keys or whatever, but I would never accuse TF2 of taking itself particularly seriously. I am always skeptical when someone feels the need to hardcode lottery tickets into their game… do they have no faith in the product itself to engender poor financial decision-making?

All that aside, it is pretty big news for Dust to be launching F2P out of the gate. I do not have a PS3 and I believe launching Dust as a PS3-exclusive (i.e. no PC version) was the worst idea in the history of ever, but this is something I am definitely keeping my eye on. As I said in an earlier article on the subject, Dust would have been the perfect vehicle to transition someone interested in the EVE concept from the fence to being podded in-game. We will have to see how the game actually plays, but being F2P gets a lot of feet in peoples’ doors.

“Judged According to Its Aspirations”

In a Ten Ton Hammer interview with CCP’s incoming Chief of Marketing Operations, David Reid says (emphasis added):

Q: CCP is clearly excited about launching DUST 514 in 2012. Help us understand why those of us in the PC gaming market (and specifically the MMO crowd) should be excited about a PlayStation 3-exclusive online shooter.

Hilmar Pétursson:  The thing that many people have raised with us is that they love everything about EVE Online, apart from playing it. It’s such an interesting world, there are so many exciting things going on, but it takes a lot of commitment to get into.

David Reid:  The opportunity with DUST is tremendous  – it’s an opportunity to bring this universe that plenty of people in the MMO side of the market have enjoyed – the persistent universe, the world’s most vibrant and “real” virtual economy. But not everybody is a fan of flying in space.

We want to bring this experience to people who may not know EVE Online or CCP to the 60 million or so people connected on the PlayStation Network, the bulk of whom know what it’s like to play a shooter and can imagine the opportunity presented by interacting inside of this mature EVE universe.

Beyond that, we also have the phenomenon that EVE Online has been all of these years. Eight years running, EVE Online is the only game in the West that has shown consecutive growth year after year, in light of the tumble World of Warcraft saw last year.

With DUST 514 shipping this year, with bringing in the tens of millions of people that play shooters on PSN into the New Eden universe, EVE could be the biggest game in the world at the end of 2012. To end the year on that upswing, it just blows my mind the opportunities we have here to keep building on this awesome universe.

Alright, David Reid… ~10 million Dust 514 players by the end of 2012. Consider it duly noted.

In trying to find out whether Dust 514 was still going to be selling for $20 or if it was F2P with microtransactions, I came across this other Q&A with Dust514.org. This exchange happened:

Eve Online is an MMO notorious for its stories of spying and backstabs. With the ease of creating alternate accounts in the PSN, how will Dust 514 discourage the inevitable creation of large amounts of alternate accounts for griefing and other skullduggery?

We don’t necessarily want to discourage spying and backstabbing :) . There are a lot of mechanisms in game to ensure battles are managed well, while not cutting into the freedoms that the EVE Universe provides.

Will Dust players be able to kick team killers at will? Hoping for a positive answer on this one.

We understand that friendly fire is not so friendly and that intentionally killing teammates can be very annoying. To keep this from getting out of control we will allow players control of their team’s composition.

As I mentioned before, I actually liked the concept of Dust 514. All the gameplay videos looked like a sci-fi Battlefield 2, which is a game I played with an MMO-level of engagement for three years straight. But PS3 exclusive? Really? It boggles my mind. And considering that the PS3 is at the end of its lifecycle – may not hear about a PS4 until 2013, but still – it seems bizarre to come out with an exclusive pseudo-MMO on a platform not guaranteed to be backwards compatible with its successor.