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Tautology of Value

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.

Why Aren’t You Playing Minecraft?

A lot of people are:

As noted in the Reddit thread where I first heard of this, the nigh-million concurrent players is only counting “PC (win/osx/linux) only, versions 1.3 and higher, modded or vanilla it doesn’t matter.” So not only is that number not even close to peak time, it does not count anyone playing on consoles or mobile devices. Or, you know, anyone playing offline.

For the record, as of June 2014 the sales broke down like this:

  • PC/Mac: 15 Million
  • 360: 12 Million
  • PS3: 3 Million
  • iOS/Android (Pocket Edition): 16.5 Million

It’s probably not a stretch to say Minecraft achieves concurrency numbers of 3 million or more any given day.

So the question I have to ask everyone – especially those constantly pining for “virtual worlds” – is why aren’t you playing Minecraft? Is this not everything you want in game? Crafting? Check. Small communities where name recognition matters? Check. No LFR/LFD? Check. Customization options? Check. Freedom to progress at your own pace? Check. A virtual world where things that matter happen around you? Check and check. And hey, it’s also a Buy-2-Play box model without a cash shop or other F2P shenanigans (as far as I know). If this isn’t a Jesus game, it’s at least a Moses.

I’m only being somewhat facetious here.

Minecraft isn’t for everyone (although it is for a lot of people), of course, but I always find it somewhat interesting in the reasons people give for why it isn’t good enough. Maybe there aren’t enough people per server? Maybe it’s the graphics? Or perhaps you are a little more attached to the traditional WoW content structure than you would have everyone else believe. After all, with the notable exception of Star Wars Galaxies and perhaps City of Heroes, many of the Jesus games are still around. Here is Dark Age of Camelot. Here is Ultima Online. Or if you prefer, Ultima Online Forever. EVE continues to be a thing. Hell, even EverQuest is still churning away. Is… there a reason you are not playing them instead of complaining about the “sorry state” of current MMOs?

I mean, I get it. A remade FF7 would be the ultimate exercise in nostalgerbation for me. There is no particular shame in saying you want an MMO to look like Wildstar but play like something that came out a decade (or more) ago. But I think it safe to say that it is a bit unrealistic. The original EverQuest and Dark Age of Camelot had budgets around $3 million back in 1999 and 2001. By the time the original Guild Wars came out in 2005, that went up to $20-30 million. RIFT was $60-70 million. SWTOR was around $200 million. I don’t think you often get green-lit for budgets of that size for game-types that clearly weren’t profitable enough to save the original title (in the case of SWG/CoH).

Still, there may yet be hope for… well, if not for you, perhaps your kids. Minecraft is the third-best selling videogame of all time, behind Wii Sports and Tetris. Microsoft bought it for $2 billion. This type of game will very clearly continue to be serious business. Then again, I’m not entirely sure that (F2P?) copies of EQN: Landmark are flying off the digital shelf, nor that ArchAge is doing particularly well, nor that virtual world supporters are supporting (supposed) virtual worlds like The Repopulation.

Camelot Unchained got funded, although the release date appears to be mid-summer 2016. Star Citizen will also (maybe) come out in 2016, with it’s $68 million in crowdfunding. So there’s a horizon out there at least, even if the actual long-term profitability of virtual worlds remains to be seen.

In the meantime… you could always play Minecraft.

WoW PLEX, pt 2

In the comments on the last post, Kring took me to task a bit for not delving deeper into the sort of game design considerations regarding WoW’s impending (?) PLEX introduction. Part of the reason I didn’t was because how it impacts me in pretty fundamental: it introduces dollar signs into my gameplay. Whether the concept or implementation of PLEX itself fits WoW is immaterial to me – it could be the best thing ever done in the history of the game… and I’m still going to be calculating my repair costs and AH cuts in USD.

That’s my own neurosis though, so perhaps it’d be interesting to look at the broader picture.

Who is WoW PLEX for?

Kring suggests the following:

Blizzard has problems to gain new players. I’m sure that if you can tell LoL players that “good player can play WoW for free” that has some appeal. And I think that’s their primary goal. To spread the news that “WoW is F2P for good player”. Which means PLEX must stay in a reasonable range, they don’t want “good player” to complain that it is “too expensive”.

Here we have the first question. Who is the player base which Blizzard thinks will constantly buy PLEX for Euro to sell it for gold?

The real answer to this question is pretty simple: WoW PLEX is for the tens of thousands of players currently purchasing from illicit gold sellers every month. And that is probably the extent to which Blizzard has thought about PLEX being utilized. We saw this exact same line of reasoning single-handedly birth the abomination that is was the Diablo 3 AH, and I have little reason to believe there is some deeper design significance going on. WoW PLEX is solely to combat illicit RMT.

While there may be X number of AH barons who will be able to PLEX their accounts year-round, I do not suspect it will be the norm for them, let alone the average person.

Are there enough gold sinks in WoW?

Second, I have my doubts that WoW at the moment has big enough gold sinks to keep enough player interested to buy PLEX with Euro and sell it for gold. PLEX will be consumed on a monthly basis, which means they must also be supplied on a monthly basis.

I think WoW must be changed to add gold sinks. New huge gold sinks. And they must hurt the players which Blizzard intends to sell PLEX for Euro in the future.

Four words: Black Market Auction House:

The Mariana Trench of Gold Sinks.

The Mariana Trench of Gold Sinks.

I could also include the more traditional “100k gold vendor mount” but that seems like small potatoes compared to the above screenshot of 840k (and counting) for the Flametalon mount. The genius of the BMAH – besides being able to have auctions get into the million-gold range – is that it targets everyone: the people chasing rare pets/mounts, the collector looking for one-of-a-kind or extremely limited items like the Arcanite Ripper, and then even the hardcore raiders with Mythic loot drops. Indeed, I don’t see much stopping even ultra-casual players from grabbing uber-high gear to help out in dungeons or to make rep grind dailies easier. Well, nothing stopping them other than needing tens of thousands of gold… which, hey, what a coincidence!

Now that I think about it, the true genius of the BMAH may well be that it was introduced first. Can you imagine the backlash if Blizzard dropped in WoW PLEX and then opened up the BMAH a week later? I don’t really believe Blizzard is that nefarious, primarily because that would require the ability to actually think ahead and plan accordingly. Which is demonstrably missing, as evidenced by their inability to release expansions on time.

Will WoW’s game design change because of PLEX?

Yes, but perhaps not for the reasons you might think.

Blizzard will shift resources to mainly create content for the player base that buys PLEX with Euro. This will be their primary target and this will be the group that will get the most updates. Take a look at GW2. They setteled on a biweekly rythm of adding new items to the cash shop and delivering small parts of their living story. Blizzard will have to add a new gold sink on at least a monthly basis and deliver something for the PLEX with Euro buying player.

What does that mean for the other player? Will we get even less “free” content? (free = not shielded with an insane gold wall).

I do not believe that Blizzard will move towards anything resembling biweekly game additions, basically because I don’t believe Blizzard is capable of creating content with such speed. That’s certainly a snarky response, but it is somewhat rooted in the dev team’s rather consistent push-back against obviously-goofy things in the game. For example, the rather strict Transmog rules which prevent you from wielding giant fish. There have certainly been plenty of silly toys and such over the years, but I don’t think we’ll ever see the sort of GW2-esque Quaggan backpacks. When you cut out those category of items, you are left with a much harder problem in spending artist time designing in-universe gear.

The real impact might well be to go the other direction: being more cautious around implementing gold sinks. I’m not quite sure what the total gold cost of the Garrison ended up being, but imagine something like Epic Flying at 5000g when PLEX is sitting at 15,000g apiece. Honestly, PLEX will probably be closer to 150,000g than anything, but Blizzard will nevertheless need to be careful to not appear to be jacking prices up for PLEX sales. Some percentage of players might sell PLEX to keep up, but there is another (likely larger) percentage that would balk at paying a double-subscription fee and just get squeezed out of the game entirely.

Is this baby steps towards F2P?

Technically it could be, but I feel like people lose the proper sense of scale when it comes to WoW.

F2P really only makes sense for a game if F2P revenue > Subscription revenue, right? One of the fundamental ways of measuring F2P revenue is ARPU, which is Average Revenue Per User. As of April, SuperDataResearch lists World of Tanks as the highest ARPU amongst several high-profile F2P titles, such as League of Legends and TF2. That amount? $4.51 ARPU. Now, LoL is sitting at $1.32 ARPU in comparison, but it of course has tens of millions of more players and thus generates much higher overall revenue than World of Tanks.

The ARPU for (Western) WoW players is at least $14.99, if you have forgotten.

Would WoW attract and ensnare at least 30+ million F2P players such that F2P would make economic sense? Could WoW attract that many? It’s very doubtful in my mind, and a rather absurd risk when you are already taking in a billion dollars a year doing exactly what you are currently doing. Blizzard won’t even enable flying in Silvermoon and you think they’ll restructure the entire payment scheme for the game? I can perhaps see them doing so sometime in the distant future, but that is the same future in which WoW drops below 5 million subscriptions. Which is still twice as many as anyone else has ever had.

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, I think WoW PLEX is a bold move on Blizzard’s part entirely meant to combat gold selling. I do not believe they are making an overt move towards F2P, I do not believe this change heralds the introduction of more gold sinks, and I do not believe many people are asking the right questions. Namely: how are you going to feel about dailies (etc) once this gets introduced? I already know it’s going to suck for me, because it sucked in Diablo 3 and Wildstar vis-a-vis hoarding currency for no particularly rational reason.

The idea is sound, and will likely work out for a lot of people. Just not me.

H1Z1 Pre-Alpha Early Release

So after a rather extraordinarily long amount of time, it appears as though the F2P SOE PlanetZombieSide MMO might actually be released on 1/15/15. On Steam Early Access. For the low, low price of $20, or an indeterminate amount of money if you want to alpha-test the super-secret special modes.

I am poking fun at the EA payment model – ahem, Early Access – but honestly I am not nearly as miffed as Keen. I too remember the days when game companies would ration out alpha/beta access for free… and I remember that same access commanding tremendous cash values on eBay. $100+ beta Gmail invites, anyone? So it makes perfect sense to me that a game company would see that situation and decide to cut out the middleman. They get prepaid game development, and you get a Kickstarter you can actually sorta play.

What I am infinitely more concerned about is the state of H1Z1 generally. The topics have not really changed since the last time I talked about it (“4-6 weeks away” back in April 2014…), but these days I am almost cringing at the PlanetSide 2 engine usage. Don’t get me wrong, Ps2 can certainly look really awesome. It also ends up looking extremely angular with a poor sense of physicality, collision, and ephemeral bodies. All of that is perfectly acceptable in a sci-fi FPS (especially one with 100s of people in close-quarters), but have you seen these H1Z1 streams? The outdoors look okay with the trees and hills and such, but indoors? It’s… too modular.

Perhaps these are the sorts of things that get papered over with better textures in beta or whatever, but the Ps2 vibe is weirding me out. That and the fact that it’s difficult to go back to manikin-on-a-pole style character interaction after the more grab-y Dead Island/State of Decay/etc style. I suppose the current system is more conducive to MMO design, but it’s tough to go back.

Unfair Impressions: Dragon Nest, Neverwinter

My recent completion of Dragon Age 2 has freed up some mental space that I wanted to give towards something outside of my normal M.O. So, after encountering a random forum discussion somewhere, I found myself downloading Dragon Nest and Neverwinter. Why these two F2P games? Why not?

Dragon Nest

I had a pretty good idea what I was in for just based on the loading screen:

If I can see ass cheeks, it's not a skirt.

If I can see ass cheeks, it’s not a skirt.

Near as I can tell, Dragon Nest is a lobby-based, Action RPG with what amounts to MMO elements. In the random forum discussion that led me to download it, the game features a heavy, skill-based element to combat. Indeed, there is no tab-targeting; the mouse controls the targeting reticule, and spammable attacks are bound to left and right-click. Whenever I received a quest, I went through two loading screens until I arrived at a predefined area, killed all the mobs, and then zoned onto the next area in a sequence with a boss at the end. This picture sums that up:

Looks better than it plays.

Looks better than it plays.

This impression is labeled as Unfair because I basically stopped playing after about two hours. I was playing as the Kali, which is basically a melee warlock dancer, so perhaps that had something to do with my lack of fun. On the other hand, I just couldn’t shake the feeling that if the game was going for kinetic Devil May Cry or God of War-ish style, that they missed the mark. Movement wasn’t as fluid as I would have liked. And then there is the sort of goofy things like quest interface, inability to zoom out very far (which is a limitation of any crosshair-targeting game, I suppose), and general sense of 2nd-rate-ness.

Neverwinter

Much to my surprise, it turns out I had actually downloaded Neverwinter months and months ago, but had never bothered to boot it up for some reason. Unfortunately, I had about ~5gb worth of updates to download, so I might have been better off with a clean install.

Permanent drunk goggles.

Permanent drunk goggles.

In my handful of hours of play, Neverwinter just strikes me as a game that is missing, oh, maybe $25 million in development. Although I am on maximum settings, the world just feels… muddy, yet insubstantial. It is another crosshair-targeting game but I had a real hard time ascertaining that enemies really existed out in the world. And sometimes they were just really hard to see. It is sort of how I felt about Guild Wars 2, but worse.

There were a lot of little D&D touches that I liked. Your “daily” power meter is a d20 that fills up over time. There are “skill checks” of sorts when interacting with certain objects out in the world. For example, after killing an NPC in a cave complex, I noticed a sparkly skull over in a bookcase. After passing a Dungeoneering check (which basically happens automatically), the bookcase opens up to reveal a treasure chest on the other side. All of this managed to evoke both D&D and a sense of physicality, the latter of which is otherwise conspicuously missing from combat itself.

Neat.

Neat.

The rest of my limited experience was spent seesawing between interest levels. I very much enjoyed how each class seems to have their own unique movement mechanism: warlocks float at a sprint whereas rogues do a dodge-roll. But movement in general just didn’t feel all that good. You know how in WoW and Wildstar and GW2 when you get a movement speed buff and you can kind of keep the momentum going after it wears off by jumping? You can’t quite do that in Neverwinter. And for some reason that feels bad. I can’t quite explain it better than that, but that feeling seeps into everything.

The other curious issue I ran into was how… health doesn’t regenerate. Maybe it does later? It just feels really weird in an MMO for it to not, as it sort of subconsciously delineates the world into checkpoint corridors. Which maybe is the point? There is health potions and such so maybe it is not all that big a deal. But it certainly felt like a big deal as I was playing.

I did not even try anything in The Foundry, which is likely the most remarkable thing Neverwinter brings to the table. Based on my current mood, it isn’t particularly likely that I will.

___________

So there are my completely Unfair Impressions for Dragon Nest and Neverwinter. If you are a player of either game, by all means let me know your own opinions on the matter. Do the games get better? Do I need to play them with a certain mindset? Which class would be the most fun? Things like that.

Parity as Entitlement

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.

 

Hearthstone, and the Infinite Dollar P2W Hypothesis

When it comes to Hearthstone, it seems you can’t win for losing.

The basic gist is that Trump, one of paragons of Hearthstone streaming, recently hit Legend rank (skip to 1:24 for the last game) with his F2P Warlock deck. This makes the 3rd class he has hit Legend with using the F2P deck concept; the prior two were Mage and Shaman. Back in February, Reynad piloted a F2P Warrior deck to Legend. Additionally, the #1 ranked player in both the NA and EU brackets, Kelento, uses a Hunter deck with six Rares. That’s right: zero Legendaries, zero Epics. With five out of the nine classes accounted for, forum-warriors and Bad Player Apologists alike continue with the narrative that Hearthstone is just another P2W cop-out. “Let’s see them hit Legend with Priest!” “Pfft, anyone can hit Legend after 180+ wins.”

Other than, you know, themselves.

As has been mentioned before though, they might not be wrong: everything hinges on how one defines Pay-2-Win. If one defines P2W as any game in which additional dollars confers any possible advantage, I suppose it could be said Hearthstone is P2W just like any given CCG. Then again, all of the F2P decks that hit Legendary rank were made using Dust and Gold given by quests and wins. In other words, zero actual dollars were utilized. Is such a broad measure of P2W even useful as a definition of anything? One can imagine a scenario in which someone paid a pro player to actually play his/her character for them, which would seemingly fit the definition of P2W even if the game itself was otherwise structured to be anti-P2W.

This sort of musing has led me to imagine something I’m calling the Infinite Dollar P2W Hypothesis. Namely, does having infinite money somehow confer infinite advantage? Under this rubric, there are a number of interesting conclusions. For example, we can safely state that games like Candy Crush Saga and even Dungeon Keeper are P2W; both games (seem to) have infinitely spammable features that make even the most difficult challenges irredeemably easy. For example, in Candy Crush Saga, you can buy extra attempts/turns on the same map along with Lollipop Hammers that break candy without taking up precious turns. Dungeon Keeper is a bit edgier of a case considering there is a hard time-limit of 3 minutes to assault a dungeon, but you can absolutely purchase infinite resources and instant build times with infinite gems.

In Hearthstone, a ~$600 purchase in booster packs guarantees you every card in the game. As mentioned above though, not only do you not need every card in the game to hit the highest of ranking, you often don’t even need anything other than cards any given player can acquire in less than a week of gameplay. But we’re talking about infinite dollars, right? In which case, all the instantly purchased/crafted Legendary cards in the world won’t save you from Kelento’s Hunter deck, by definition of he being #1 on two continents. Control-type decks seem to require a lot of Legendaries to be competitive, sure, but I think it’s difficult to argue that P2W equals “money improves poor performance” without that (indirectly at worst) applying to everything.

A P2W definition that restricts the advantage stemming from only cash purchases paints games like PlanetSide 2 as P2W (camouflage is SC only) whereas Hearthstone gets a free pass. And considering how “F2P” games like Candy Crush Saga and Dungeon Keeper are moving towards a random daily prize model (that either awards cash shop items directly or cash shop currency), suddenly we’re in a world in which the “obvious” P2W games aren’t actually P2W anymore.

Perhaps P2W is one of those nebulous concepts, like porn, relegated to the “I know it when I see it” category. Be that as it may, I think my own evolving opinion is settling on the Infinite Money Hypothesis. Because in a world where companies like Blizzard price things specifically to dissuade certain behavior (e.g. $25 server transfers), surely we can conclude that infinite money breaks whatever balance they believe they achieved through pricing. If everyone had infinite money, would the policy still work? If not, it is at best a blunt instrument. At worst, a cynical money grab.

All that being said, I’m willing to entertain counter-examples.

Dungeon Keeper App: A Study in Bad Game Design

Your first thought might be: “Obviously!”

No, not obviously. When the Dungeon Keeper (DK) app first came out, the entirety of the criticism revolved around EA and the bastardization of a beloved (?) franchise into a time-n-money sink exploitative F2P game. Here is the thing few people might know: DK is perhaps the best entry into this sub-genre. This might sound a little be like being called “the best STD,” but the game itself is surprisingly good.

At least, it was good.

My original design.

My original design.

What made DK good (and still does) is the fostering of creativity and depth through constraint. As you might already know, DK is a downtime management game – you spend more time not doing things than actually doing them. The basic principal is to construct a dungeon filled with traps to safeguard your own stockpile of resources while raiding the dungeons of others. Everything takes time to complete: summoning minions, constructing traps, upgrading traps, excavating rock tiles to make room for traps, and so on. On release, the excavation was particularly lampooned in that the map was filled with tiles that took 4 hours and 24 hours apiece to dig out. Or, you know, you could spend Gems (an RMT currency) to dig them instantly.

Here’s the thing though: being time-locked forced you to construct novel dungeon designs with whatever you had available. Since everyone starts on the same map, we could imagine there being X variations of the perfect defensive layout had all the squares been filled with soft dirt (takes 3 seconds to dig). Instead, we have X * Y variations because different people are at different levels of excavation; some concentrate on digging out all the 4-hour tiles instead of the 24-hour ones, some are the opposite, and still others concentrate all their time on upgrading traps instead of excavation. Creativity through constraint. Yes, technically this also enables the designers to wheedle in-app purchases out of you. But! It’s a compelling gameplay mechanic nonetheless.

Somebody just got sent home.

Somebody just got sent home.

Before I move on, I also want to mention that the other end of the creativity came from watching the replays of your own dungeon getting sacked. Given how attacking players can use magic to bomb open your walls or remotely disable your traps, sometimes it feels like there is nothing you can do to stop attacks. But what you can do is make your dungeon punishing. Magic regenerates very slowly, such that a player looking for enough resources to purchase an upgrade are unlikely to blow their entire load just to sack your one dungeon when they could split it up inbetween juicier, less-defended targets. It is a particularly novel delight watching a replay of someone throwing 2+ hours of congealed time at your defenses and see them go home with nothing. It’s part of the reason why I have played DK for so long.

The problem(s) with DK really came with their Update #2 several weeks ago. There are other fundamental problems, but I’ll get to that in a bit. In short, Update #2 destroyed the in-game economy.

Prior to Update #2, you unlocked bomb-proof walls as you upgraded various rooms and the Dungeon Heart. The number of such walls you could place were extremely limited, so you really had to think about the best location to place them. Did you want to protect a particular room? Force minions down a particular corridor? Or did you want to prevent people from digging a tunnel from the South part of the map? What the Mythic devs decided was to up-end the entire mechanic: instead of bomb-proof, they made walls upgradable. Instead of 20 bomb-proof walls at the end, you could have 100 not-bomb-proof walls that could sustain various amounts of magic damage depending on level.

Seriously, watching people fail on your dungeon never gets old.

Seriously, watching people fail on your dungeon never gets old.

For example, my current Bomb Wall spell deals 500 damage in a 3×3 square. A level 1 wall has 300 HP, and each level beyond that increases wall HP by +150. It costs 10k Stone to place a level 1 wall, 30k to upgrade to 2, 60k to 3, 120k for 4, and so on. As you might imagine, this whole “wall update” introduced a Stone sink on a massive scale. The game already had sinks of sorts – my current rooms now cost 2 million Stone apiece to upgrade – but I can imagine there may have been a need at the higher end. Or, perhaps more cynically, the devs wanted the DK Premium “subscription” (+40% resource gains from raiding) to be more appealing.

The Stone sink though has set off a cascade of fail throughout the game. The amount of resources that can be stolen from your dungeon is 30% of your stockpile (up to a maximum determined by your Dungeon heart level) + 10% of your unclaimed resources from quarries/mines around the map. Although there was always an incentive to “hide” your Stone in upgrading traps and such, there simply weren’t all that many locations; you can only have X number of Fire Traps and doors and such. Update #2 introduced 100 more to the pile, e.g. walls, and made it a high priority to upgrade them, e.g. to help prevent more Stone from being stolen via Bomb Wall spells. But since all the high-level players are now Stone deficient, the only people who have Stone laying around are… low-level players.

So the current “metagame” in DK is sandbagging, which means intentionally lowering your Trophy score (i.e. ELO) to get matched against noobs who either don’t know what they’re doing or have already abandoned the game and are simply letting their resources rot. Since they are low-level, it’s easier to steal their resources with your high-level minions given how their traps/layouts aren’t difficult. Since it’s not difficult to invade, you can send in less advanced troops that have quicker build times (e.g. 40-second Trolls instead of 20-minute Ghosts). Since you have quicker build times, you can raid more often and likely not need to use magic at all. Since you’re raiding more often, you are in-game for longer, which prevents your rapidly accumulating Stone reserves from being vulnerable to theft. And because of all of this, you are more likely to hit whatever Stone target you were going for and then spend said Stone, putting you back down to near-zero and safe to log off.

My current dungeon noobgrinder. Hint: don't spawn inside the killbox.

My current dungeon noobgrinder. Hint: don’t spawn inside the killbox.

The Mythic devs have responded on the forums that Update #3 will fix all of this and punish the sandbaggers, but the preview we have gotten is woefully naive. Their “solution” is the introduction of PvP tiers of sorts based on ELO. The higher the tier, the more bonus Stone you receive for a win. At my hypothetical tier, I could see an additional… 35k Stone. For fighting someone tooth and nail as advanced as myself. Who isn’t likely to have 35k Stone laying around to begin with. Compare that to someone at a lower ELO would could easily have 200k sitting around just waiting to be stolen.

Needless to say, this is bad game design. It is not bad simply because I dislike it; it is bad because it will not accomplish what it set out to do, or worse, have the opposite outcome.

I am not especially surprised at this non-solution, as the devs have yet to address a similarly counter-intuitive decision vis-a-vis intentionally not opening mines/quarries. There are 8 mines along the outside of the map, and unlocking them means getting free resources each time you click them; at the highest levels, you can get 200k+ Stone every 32 hours or whatever. However, enemy Keepers use these same mines as spawn points. Thus, the more mines you open, the more vulnerable your dungeon. The less mines you open, the less vulnerable your dungeon (just stuff all your warehouses in the corner), the easier it is to keep resources you steal from others, and the better off you are in general. Also? You can’t close mines you have opened. Basically, if you’re like me and open all the mines, you’re just screwed, permanently.

This shit is so stupid.

There is close to zero downside to this.

There is a similarly counter-intuitive punishment mechanic in upgrading your Dungeon Heart. You gain access to more traps and rooms by upgrading the Heart, but each level increases the maximum amount of resources that can be stolen from you. Thus, the only sane strategy is to make the Heart the last possible thing to upgrade. If you upgrade early, whoops, permanently screwed with hardmode.

My solutions to these issues? Well, first, I’d levy a 20k (or 20%) penalty to resource gains for each mine you do not unlock, down to some minimum – if your raid would have resulted in 100k Stone, you actually only get 60k if you have three mines unopened. Considering how the only players worth attacking are those with 100k+ Stone up for grabs, this would hopefully encourage people to open their mines, making more targets available. On a related note, the second change is one’s ELO score should be commensurate with the amount of Stone that can be stolen, not Dungeon Heart rank. Thus, the sandbaggers can get “easy” Stone, but significantly less such that they might have been better going after equally-skilled players.

Third, mine/quarry resource gains should double, minimum. Fourth, flip the numbers: 30% of unclaimed Stone is vulnerable and only 10% of one’s stockpile, not vice versa. This encourages more periodic log-ins during the day and makes people feel safer in saving up their Stone rather than immediately sinking it into walls. There is nothing more demoralizing than logging on and seeing someone having stolen 100k Stone, knowing that you would have been better off upgrading a door or whatever.

This may seem like a lot of words to devote to an evil, bastardized mobile app, but… I think you’d be surprised. I have long since deleted Castle Clash and feel like another game in this sub-genre would have to get a lot of things right to surpass Dungeon Keeper in terms of fun and strategery. Is it annoying waiting all the time? Sure. Then again, a 4-hour excavation only takes 2 hours if you slap your imps, and thus each time I boot the game up during my breaks at work there is something new to do. I spent two hours (!!) “playing” last night (in 6-minute increments) trying to scrape up 500k Stone to hit 2 million without risking getting bled dry overnight. The app definitely has an expiration date at some point – the thought of trying to get 6 million Stone for an 8-day upgrade is just obscene – but the same could be said about a lot of games.

So, yeah. Dungeon Keeper. Didn’t see that coming, did you?

H1Z1-fit

As you may or may not have heard, SOE is coming out with a zombie apocalypse MMO called DayZ Online H1Z1. This was, in fact, what Smedley was talking about vis-a-vis the MMO that SWG veterans “could come home to.” Because… crafting? Whatever.

By the way, I’m with Syp on pronouncing H1Z1 as “hizzy.” Because just with the Xbone before it, these companies need to take a little more thought with how they name their products.

The details of the game are sketchy. Not in the ambiguous sense, but rather in the “there’s no possible way that will work” sense. Right off the top, this is a F2P full-loot FFA PvP game. In fact, the Tweets (sigh) are suggesting that the current design is permadeath, but I have a hard time imagining rerolling an entirely new character each time. I mean, if your character’s facial features and other customizations are somehow saved, is that really permadeath? Another feature is player housing that exists in the world, and people can set it on fire, presumably even while you are offline. That sounds totally reasonable, amirite? There will also be “trading,” which I understand as a euphemism for looting things off the corpses of traders. There are also no levels, which combined with the F2P aspect, seems to indicate the potential for an infinite firebombing army to reduce all player-owned structures to cinder at 4am.

Now, conceivably, these are solvable problems. Smedley has mentioned the existence of different server types, some of which will likely be PvZ-only. Some might even offer player housing protection on by default ala Minecraft. I have little doubt that we’ll also see housing immunity (or at least insurance) for 2000 Station Cash. The question mark is whether they’ll sell items directly, which could become problematic with a full-loot PvP system. “Hah, I totally ganked that dude and stole his $10 golden revolver.” [Fake edit: you keep your customization]

As a PS2 player, I wouldn't put this past them.

As a PlanetSide 2 player, I wouldn’t put this past them.

Speaking of monetization, Smedley has a Reddit thread up right now asking for ideas. No, seriously, he does. Currently, he seems pretty adamant that A) they will not be selling weapons at all, and B) they have a “preference” to not selling anything that helps with survival. Everything else is conceivably on the table… other than just asking for a goddamn subscription or box purchase. Many of the ideas so far revolve around pets, animations, clothing, and in-game advertisements ala Battlefield 2142. To his credit, Smedley shot down that last one, although ironically that would be something that made complete sense in the context of the game.

As far as the map size goes, well, here is Smedley:

I’ve seen a bunch of people asking questions about the Map size. Forgelight is built to handle arbitrarily sized worlds. Our plan is simple – we’re building the core of “anywhere USA”. When we first open it up to users the map will be huge, but nowhere near as big as it’s going to be in short order. Our Map Editing system allows us to quickly add massive areas. We want to make sure we clearly understand how the players are playing the game before we do that. On Planetside 2 we made a mistake by making multiple continents before we had a strong enough idea of what worked and what didn’t. This game is different. We’re doing it smarter. […]

So not to worry. Zombie Apocalypse isn’t going to be any fun if it’s like Disneyland on Spring Break and super crowded. We want remote.. haunting… being scared when you see someone. Your first instinct needs to be to hide. If there are 20 players in your view it’s not a very convincing Apocalypse :)

Ah. So… an MMO where actively avoiding other people is the only sane way to play. Hey, at least I already have a lot of practice doing just that.

This is the part of the post where I balance the negativity of the preceding paragraphs with some halfhearted praise. So… uh… well. I liked State of Decay? Using the PlanetSide 2 engine means they will have a quick development cycle, although it also means there won’t be any actual physics. The “play as a zombie” mode sounds like it could be fun. And… yeah. I feel kinda bad for The Forest guys, although maybe I shouldn’t – at least The Forest doesn’t feature full-loot PvP.

H1Z1 will be up on Steam’s Early Release program in 4-6 weeks for $20. Why are we paying money for the privledge of alpha-testing free-to-play games? Because fuck you, that’s why.

Beta Impressions: Hawken

In an effort to both delay poor decision-making and assuage the pain of not having purchased Titanfall for $48 via GMG, I decided to download and play Hawken this weekend. Apparently the game is still in open beta (since December 2012), even though I could have sworn it had been released already, but whatever.

Graphics are pretty decent.

Graphics are pretty decent.

Hawken is a F2P F2Download FPS mech PvP game. Considering it too has a 6v6 player limit, there are a lot of amusing parallels to Titanfall, actually. The mech combat feels legitimately like you are inside a mech – it takes time to get momentum going when moving, your turning speed is slow, and so on. That being said, your maneuverability is actually pretty good with the assistance of thrusters, allowing you limited ability to fly through the air, do quick dodges, and do a 180-spin. Some mechs have larger (regenerating) fuel reserves than others, and there are lighter mechs that can perform all sorts of mid-air acrobatics.

The shooting feels pretty good and the TTK (Time To Kill) seems reasonable; you frequently have enough time to register you are taking damage and get to cover without dropping past 50%. All mechs can repair themselves, but it leaves you insanely vulnerable for up to 10+ seconds, the first few of which do not repair you at all. There are a few other ways to get some repair action going (defeated mechs drop health orb things), but I actually like how “sticky” damage ends up being; the prevalence of cover-based firing plus regenerating HP in FPS games has led to an over-reliance of ultra-short TTK, in my opinion. In other words, in Hawken you can dance around cover taking potshots at enemies, but eventually you’ll have to give them the opportunity to rush your position.

Pretty badass, actually.

Pretty badass, actually.

Out of the very few games modes Hawken has, the most unique is probably Siege. Basically, each side attempts to gather power resources from either power stations or stealing it from downed mechs, and then deposit it back at their base. Once enough has been gathered, a capital ship appears and starts slowly flying towards the enemy base. At this point, the main goal is “capping” the AA turret in the middle of the map, as it will quickly destroy an opposing ship. If the ship gets within range of the enemy base, it will start damaging it, and your side wins when the base HP goes to zero. If both sides summon a capital ship, they will duke it out in the skies above.

Most interestingly though, your own mechs can fire at the capital ship and deal damage. There are exposed turrets that can be destroyed to significantly reduce the offensive power of a ship, and with enough time even a single mech can whittle the rest of the ship’s hull down with concentrated fire at the engines. All of which introduce neat little dilemmas throughout the battle: do you focus on gaining power, or slowing the enemy’s power gains? Do you bunker down on the AA and hope someone else on your team caps power? Do you assault the AA or do you spend time shooting the capital ships from the ground?

Having said all that, the main concern with these sorts of game are the progression/reward system. And it’s here that I feel Hawken flounders a bit.

If you have a $100 option in your F2P game, reevaluate your life choices.

If you have a $100 option in your F2P game, please reevaluate your life choices.

Pretty much every single thing is an unlock you purchase with Hawken Credits (HC) or with the RMT Meteor Credits (MC). While you start off with a rather large sum of HC, each subsequent battle adds maybe +250 HC at the top end. Sometimes you get as little as 70 HC. Other mech chassis start at 3800 HC and go up to 12,000+ HC. While it is tempting to not spend any HC until you hit that first tier of new mechs, you forgo equipable items and passive abilities (costing anywhere from 300 to 3500 HC apiece) in the process, making you that much weaker for longer. And by the way, each equipment unlock is specific for that mech. Spend 3k MC on regenerating armor on one mech, and you’ll have to spend another 3k to unlock the same item elsewhere.

Is there any P2W? Strictly speaking: no. However, Hawken absolutely features strictly-better upgrades and arguably strictly-better mech types such that you can easily get creamed by more advanced players (who might have spent money to get there). At the most basic level, for example, items have one charge per respawn; their Mk III versions allows three charges per respawn. Thus, even though we might be able to say that grenades or EMP blasts or whatever is balanced, having access to them as essentially a spammable ability (cooldown aside) is not at all balanced in comparison to someone with just a single charge.

Overall, the game is decent enough for a 3.5gb F2Download title. There aren’t a whole lot of maps (7-8ish) or game modes (5) or even opponents (6v6), but the action nevertheless feels quick, responsive, and generally cool as a mech pilot blowing shit up. Hell, each mech’s ability to hover and dodge and boost forward almost made it feel like Titanfall for like a whole second there. Not the fairest of comparisons, of course, but there it is.