Just doing my nightly Kotaku crawl when I came across a Let’s Talk About Star Ocean 2 article. Holy nostalgia, man.
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.
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.
Game: Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale
Recommended price: $5
Metacritic Score: 82
Completion Time: ~16 hours
Buy If You Like: Japanese indie games with funny localizations
Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale is a Japanese indie game localized in the Working Designs (RIP) tradition, wherein you take control of Recette as she turns her lonely house into an item shop to pay off her missing adventurer father’s defaulted debt. With the aid of the loan shark fairy Tear, you can either buy weapons, armor, and other goods at wholesale prices from the markets to sell at a premium, or hire out adventurers to go clear dungeons and sell those drops in your store. Time is limited however, and you must make each week’s increasingly crazy payment lest your home get repossessed.
I found the general gameplay and underlying mechanical tension surprisingly fun. Each day in Recettear is divided into four slices, which you can use to run your shop, spend going out shopping, or use two at a time to go through dungeons. I frequently found myself in interesting dilemmas: with the 80,000 payment due tomorrow, should I spend all four time slices to peddle my dwindling wares? Should I gamble that a dungeon run will net be some expensive “free” items, and that I still have time to sell them? Or should I actually spend money at the market in the hopes that I can recoup with profit before tomorrow?
These dilemmas even extend to the actual selling of items too, as you must decide what markup percent your customers are willing to accept. Shoot for the guaranteed 110%… or stretch to 130%? Finally, at random intervals the market for weapons/consumables/etc will either crash or spike, which can force you to sell at half price or lets you double your profits respectively.
Overall, I enjoyed the game while it lasted, or at least the first 8-10 hours. Defaulting on the loan actually leads to a Game Over screen, but you can start again at Week 1 with your full inventory, same adventurer levels/equipment, and same Merchant Level and other unlocks. While this makes beating the game an inevitability, you are likely to understand the underlying systems well enough to make beating the game a forgone conclusion before the end of Loop 2. For those who find themselves obsessed, Recettear does offer a quite a selection of post-game activities, including New Game+, Endless mode, and even Survival Hell mode where you have to keep making six-figure loan payments until you finally default.
If you want a unique, quirky indie game with an amusing localization, Recettear has you covered.
Recommended price: Bundle
Metacritic Score: 78
Completion Time: ~3 hours
Buy If You Like: A less artistic LIMBO, or short side-scrolling puzzle games
Deadlight is a side-scrolling puzzle platformer in the tradition of Out of This World or LIMBO, to use a more recent example. You control Randall Wayne has he navigates his way through a 1980s version of a Seattle zombie apocalypse on a mission to find his family. Amidst the frankly ridiculous jumping scenarios that Randall solves with Assassin’s Creed-levels of aplomb, you will frequently be harassed by zombies (or “Shadows” as they are termed here), which creates an extra level of tension and danger to the side-scrolling navigation.
It is worth noting that this game is stunningly beautiful; clocking in at 4.1 gigs, I suspect that the characters and environments are actually rendered in full 3D, with the camera merely forcing a 2D perspective. Aside from the graphics though, my comparison with LIMBO remains apt: Deadlight is an incredibly short game whose merits largely reside on the artistic side of the spectrum, rather than gameplay. Whereas LIMBO’s style accentuated the gameplay though, Deadlight’s more realistic bent strains credulity and breaks immersion in a few places. An example is in the screenshot above, where Randall had to leap from a building onto a series of cranes, then jump down to wire before launching himself over a barbwire fence. While platformers require a healthy degree of suspension of disbelief in general, I had a hard time getting over the fact that there is clearly a perfectly safe pathway not 10 feet in the background of that very screenshot.
Despite the immersion breaks, Deadlight isn’t a bad game – it is simply something I would not recommend picking up outside of a bundle. Even if you pick it up on a $5 sale as I did, the dollar-per-hour of entertainment is not particularly impressive.
With the 1-month honeymoon coming to its end, and a series of “amateur-hour” missteps combined with other bad news, the general feeling seems to be coalescing around SWTOR’s present or future inevitable “failure.” While everyone is entitled to their own insipid pessimism, the sorts of reasoning being provided are a little weak.
1) Absurdly High Standards
There are two main flavors of absurdity under this umbrella. The first is simply ridiculous, the sort that sees WoW going from 12 million to 10 million as a failure, a sign of collapse, of crushing moral defeat. Or, going from 32 to 26.667 times the size of EVE, the MMO yardstick whose robustness is the de facto definition of success. I agree that WoW deserves the subscription loss, that it is directly linked to Cataclysm, and further that WoW may never recover those subs and/or continue a sub decline for the foreseeable future.
However, let’s be honest here: if that is the sort of yardstick we are using, the entire MMO market is an abysmal failure.
The second, lesser form of absurdity is identifiable in this quote from Nils:
[...] I would now say that EA could be happy if they had 500k subscribers one year after launch.
In other words, SW:TOR failed. And it failed for EXACTLY the reasons we, the blogosphere, had predicted for at least 2 years prior to launch. We should be proud – and sad.
For comparison, EVE is the second largest Western MMO on the market at, by last count, 375,000 subs. Between 25% and 62.5% larger than 2nd place is a failure? Really?
You know what, though? I think it is important to have a discussion about what “success” really means – just like with “casual” and other loaded terms, having some kind of idea where people actually stand would reduce the effects of talking past one another.
2) Vague Definitions of Success
“Success” is largely arbitrary, and depends on the goals one sets for oneself. If you set out to run an 8-minute mile and can only get to down to a 9-minute mile, you have “failed.” That you improved from a 15-minute mile to 9-minutes is irrelevant in an objective sense.
Success in a market sense, is a little less arbitrary – you are either making money or you are not. According to the information we have available (circa last May), SWTOR needs a minimum of 375k subscriptions to break even, and ~500k to be reasonably profitable. So in the Nils quote, SWTOR would be a success at 500k.
But what of the analyst who sent EA stocks tumbling 3% based on “disappointing sales” and churn rates? Since we don’t have access to his data or methodology, it is difficult to appraise his conclusions. However, the very next day EA stocks went back up 2% after three separate brokers said SWTOR is “performing in line with expectations.” One of them went on to say:
Evan Wilson of Pacific Crest wrote Friday that he has raised his sales estimate for “Star Wars” to 2.2 million units from 1.5 million units for the quarter, and said he remains “comfortable” with his 800,000 subscriber target when the company’s fiscal year ends in late March.
“Admittedly, we set our expectations as if Star Wars was to be a good, not great, MMO,” he wrote. “Fortunately, we think the company did too.”
Hardly a ringing endorsement, but there it is. There is a line between the soft bigotry of low expectations and aggressive schadenfreude – the challenge is finding it. “Good, not great, MMO” might be a bit too low for even my standards, especially given write-ups like these in the LA Times (turns out SWTOR officially cost $200m). We will know more about the numbers in February when EA’s financial statements become available, but I am inclined to say that if SWTOR can achieve/maintain 500k-800k subscriptions for the year it will undeniably be a success.
3) Endgame Concerns
About a week ago, Tobold was discussing Richard Bartle’s feelings towards the SWTOR endgame (which are rather interesting, by the way). Down in the comment section, Tobold said something I wanted to highlight:
In short, I know why I prefer leveling in SWTOR to leveling in WoW. I don’t know why I would prefer raiding in SWTOR to raiding in WoW. Do you?
It is an interesting question because by all accounts, we have no idea what the average WoW player is doing. Looking at Cataclysm, only approximately 17.28% of the Western audience killed 1 raid boss in T11 content, and ~12.69% killed 1 raid boss in T12. Even if my methodology¹ is flawed, it is likely we are looking at a game in which over two-thirds of players do not participant in raiding, i.e. the “accepted” endgame. So… what are they doing? Heroics? Battlegrounds? Goldshire RP? Everyone seems to agree that the WoW leveling game has been irreparably destroyed, and yet there seems to be no other explanation as for what the vast, vast majority of the playerbase seems to be doing.
In this respect, SWTOR’s raiding endgame seems as likely as not to be irrelevant. Perhaps the social mechanisms of organized raiding trickle down to the masses, perhaps raiding increases player engagement, perhaps you need hardcore gamers to bind a community together long enough for a population’s sheer gravity to take over. These are open questions. Until we get some usage statistics from Blizzard though, I feel comfortable enough suggesting that the depth of SWTOR’s endgame is not particularly important to its overall success/failure; it clearly is not in WoW.
Retention is a function of social ties, which inevitably take place primarily in the endgame, but they are not about the endgame per se. As long as Bioware steps up its guild infrastructure plans and its Show & Tell aspects, as I said before I see no particular problem with retention at whatever sub level they achieve.
Flowers, Sunshine Aside…
The real challenges SWTOR faces are more systemic in nature.
Nearly everyone has expressed concerns when it comes to the full voice acting, for example, but I am much more concerned about the related problem of localization. According to that LA Times article I linked earlier, SWTOR is only localized in two languages (German and French). In contrast, WoW has been localized into eight: German, French, Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese, Russian, Korean, and both Traditional and Simplified Chinese. While SWTOR catches somewhat of a break when it comes to the aliens speaking gibberish that can be Cut & Paste, just imagine the ridiculousness that is recording all other voice work in three separate languages (plus male/female differences!), let alone additional languages in the future.
This is relevant because, quite honestly, WoW could shut down all US/EU servers and still probably maintain 5+ million Asian subscriptions into perpetuity (Aion inexplicably has 4 million after all). Meanwhile, SWTOR does not have access to the Asian MMO market and thus has much shorter reach. Assuming, of course, that Star Wars is even a hot commodity over there to begin with.
The other systemic issue is the gravity of the game itself. While I believe SWTOR will probably be fine in maintaining at least ~500k subs (and be successful as a result), needing at least 375k subs to be worth the $200 million endeavor is somewhat worrisome. All MMOs probably have some kind of break-even point, well-publicized or not, but generally speaking a game company grows in relation to the success of the game. The question arises as to how long EA would tolerate sub-375k performance before more drastic measures were enacted. Given EA’s rather public rivalry with Activisn-Blizzard when it comes to Call of Duty vs Battlefield 3, I am inclined to believe they will go to heroic lengths to keep SWTOR in the fight should it fall, but it may well go the other way too.
In any case, things are shaping up to be an interesting year.
¹ I actually think my methodology is better than the sort of Armory audits appearing on MMO-Champ as of late. The problem with Armory audits is the “white noise” of alts. Since I extrapolate based on guilds, it is much more likely that a raider’s alts are filtered out rather than included, and thus not diluting the figures. Of course, MMOData.net hasn’t been updated since WoW started hemorrhaging subscriptions, and so finding the current US/EU/KR/TW baseline is impossible, thus possibly skewing the percentages of T12 and beyond.