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The Big F2P Correction

Big props to Eph for bringing my attention to a recent Gamasutra article entitled “How the Data Implosion will trigger the Great Game Dev Correction.” In it, the author put his “100% predictive accuracy” record on the line to portend the coming (Date: TBA) collapse of the F2P market.

If you want the short version of the 3100-word article, here it is: erosion of Consumer Surplus.

Really though, the author points to two primary trends that have entangled with one another in a negative feedback loop. The principle one is that the User Acquisition Cost, e.g. how much money spent on advertising/etc, continues to increase. One of the main drivers of that is the simple fact that there are thousands of competing titles on the market, with more arriving all the time. While we like to imagine that more options are better, the truth is that nobody really goes past the first two pages of Google results, much less browsing all 21,000 new games that came out in the last month. By “mathematical certainty,” costs go up trying to find new customers, revenue goes down as a result, and studios close their doors.

…but not before engaging in some Consumer Surplus shenanigans.

See, the second part of the feedback loop is how most F2P game companies are engaging in their data-driven quest to extract the maximum amount of Consumer Surplus from each user. Think lockboxes and timers and “special, one-time deals” that are psychologically honed to trick you into believing them to be worthwhile purchases. The very real problem though is that consumers have finite money. Shocking, I know. Since all of these F2P titles are trying to extract the same pool of dollars, all that happens is that each individual app only receives a smaller share of them.

And even worse than that is what we as gamers come to understand intuitively: these games just have less value as a result. In every sense of the term. Studios are spending more time and development dollars on ever more novel ways of tricking you to part with your cash, than they are with creating content worth purchasing in the first place. But even when those two points intersect, we’re left with little to no Consumer Surplus. At a certain point, you are better off watching Netflix than having to spend precisely the amount of money as enjoyment received from a game.

Now, the author is predicting a Correction at some point, with the Creative forces – as opposed to Big Data – rising up from the ashes of a devastated (F2P) game market and commanding a higher salary since we all suddenly realize we want better content again. I’m… not so sure.

For one thing, the F2P genie is out of the Cash Shop bottle. There is zero reason to believe that the surviving games of a post-Correction world will leave that extracted Consumer Surplus money on the table. Secondly, the game industry itself has proven rather resistant to the notion that content creators should be paid practically anything. Undoubtedly part of that is due to the fact that everyone wants to be a (armchair) game designer and thus there is no market pressure to improve working conditions/pay. Hell, I wanted that job so much that I spent two years of college studying programming and Japanese so I could try to break into the industry back in the early 2000s.

Finally, there’s Minecraft. You know, that little indie game that was sold to Microsoft for $2.5 billion three years ago? While an excellent case study in why Creatives are better than Big Data, the fact remains that this “simple” game won the lottery in a way that will inspire decades of copycats and dreamers, just as WoW convinced everyone that MMOs were the next big thing. The MMO fever has mostly died down, but that’s because it costs $60 million a pop to roll the dice. Meanwhile, there are hundreds of thousands of people creating apps in their basements for free, let alone the corporate code monkeys churning out thousands of Flappy Bird derivatives. The cost of each attempt is so low, and the payout is potentially so high, that there is no reason to believe investors wouldn’t keep some pocket change flowing into basically purchasing Powerball tickets each week.

So, while I do agree there will be a Correction of some sort in the game industry, it’s ultimately not going to fix the flooding of garbage games. What I expect to see is a return to Curation: a sifting through the river of shit for those few nuggets of value. People will find the voices that they trust, and those voices will end up picking the winners and the losers. At least, up until the Curators become corrupted by studios throwing money at them, and the great cycle repeats.

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If Guild Wars 2 Succeeds, It Will Be In Spite Of…

With there being just ten days until the prepaid preordered preliminary prelaunch, I figure now is about as good a time as any for a damp GW2 blanket. Not really cynicism for cynicism’s sake, but because there is a bit too much irrational exuberance in the comment sections of otherwise reasonable skepticism. When people start suggesting an MMORPG without a endgame will be fine because MOBA or Counter-Strike, it is time to grab the hose.

And lest anyone forget, the following predictions are based on my experience in all three of the beta weekend events – feel free to read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and/or Part 4 for a recap, or just read everything in the GW2 Category for the full experience. I already paid my $60, I am going to be there on the 25th (assuming the servers are up), so it is not as though I want GW2 to fail. I just personally believe that if GW2 succeeds, it will be in spite of…

1. Dynamic Events

Seriously, folks, “Dynamic” Events (hereafter Events) are one of the most over-hyped, under-performing features since WoW voice chat. If anyone in-game talks about Events a month after launch, it will solely be in the context of “Where do I level now?” and “Where are all the Events?” and “I’ve been waiting for X Event to spawn for six minutes now!” and “Lame, the Waypoint I wanted to use is contested.” Events are not Guild Wars 2’s killer app. Events are fun the first time, promote spontaneous grouping in the immediate area, and technically have branching paths, I guess.

Events also scale horribly with a lot of people (melee in particular get hammered by dozens of instantly spawned +2 level mobs), are boring the 2nd/3rd/nth time around, interfere with normal questing/exploring in the area (yay, 20 kobolds just spawned in this cave again), are not easy to find or fun to wait around for, and become just plain tedious when completed alone. Regardless of how successful or not GW2 does sales-wise, it will not take but a few weeks for the playerbase to diffuse across the leveling/zone spectrum, making the outdoor-raid-esque feel of beta Events turn into the Warhammer’s “Forever Alone” Public Quest ghost towns.

You do not even have to have played the beta to understand any of this. Just explain out loud, to yourself, how and why Events are going to be fun for you. Do you sound convincing? For bonus points, elaborate how you figure Events are supposed replace traditional quests as the bulk of GW2’s PvE system.

2. WvWvWvWvWpppfffft

I understand that there will probably be some sort of dedicated segment of the playerbase that thinks WvW is the best thing since Isle of Conquest. And they will be correct, it is an improvement on Isle of Conquest in almost every way!

WvWvWow, Isle of Conquest

Other things better than Isle of Conquest include: stepping on a nail, papercuts on your knuckles, Miley Cyrus’ haircut.

I can honestly say that I do not see the appeal of PvWall. It was fun using a cannon to shoot down a constant stream of anonymous damage against massed chumps, but I would be hard pressed to recall a time when being said chump in a rain of frames-per-second-crushing pain was at all what I wanted to do.

And did you see the screenshot I posted way back in the first beta weekend? Here, let me bring it to your attention again:

Yo dawg, I heard you like “world” in your world pvp, so…

If you zone in with 8-10 friends, or even a small group, I can maybe see it being a nice diversion to go kill a bunch of NPC guards at one of the random outposts and otherwise inflicting maximum annoyance. But knocking on a wall and then killing a Keep Lord and then losing said keep a few hours later after you turn in for the night when the West coast PvP guild logs on? And god help you if you want to do WvW below level 80 – you get leveled up to 80, but neither your gear nor your skills are leveled likewise. I imagine we will all get pretty adept at playing Angry Birds one-handed as we navigate the 2.25 minute graveyard run for the millionth time.

Did all this work in DAoC? I dunno, I’ll take your word for it. Then again, a lot of shit worked ten years ago. Like subscription-based games, amirite?

3. Flat Endgame

I only today ran across these two Youtube videos that answered one of my fundamental questions of what happens at endgame, and it was surprisingly succinct: you continue gaining Skill Points for each “level” you gain past 80. Moreover, you can spend said Skill Points in a variety of ways (you likely will have purchased all the character Skills long before this point) including transmuting mats and… more cosmetic gear. I do not find cosmetic rewards in of themselves particularly compelling, but at least you gain something for sidekicking with your friend’s alt or whatever. Not that you always need a reason beyond their company, but let’s face it, it is better for everyone involved that it is incentivized at least in some small way.

That said, I have a big problem with the argument that the vast majority of WoW players do not see an endgame, and thus GW2’s lack of one is no big deal. Yes, raiding is only experienced by ~20% of the playerbase (although LFR undoubtedly changed all that). However, an order of magnitude more players run dungeons as an endgame activity, satisfying the urge of character progression via Justice/Valor Point purchases. Nevermind farming Honor in random BGs. Ostensively both activities exist in GW2 as well – although there are what, 3 BGs (all Conquest) and 8 dungeons? – but running, say, dungeons over again is going to be the equivalent of WoW’s upcoming Challenge Modes. Does anyone thing this is going to be a long-term retention solution?

By the way, I find the “everyone just rolls alts” rationale amusing considering it cedes the progression point. Gaining levels and better gear is fun, and that is exactly why designers try and transplant that same feeling into the endgame via incremental gear upgrades.

In any case, those are my Guild Wars 2 predictions ten days before the headstart launch. Like I mentioned before, and hopefully you have understood by the title of the post, I am not necessarily predicting GW2’s failure or poor retention or whatever else. It could very well be that the game is a smashing success, breaks the 7th Seal, and ushers us into a dawning Age of eternal bliss. If it does so, it will be in spite of Dynamic Events, WvW, and its endgame, not because of them.

I could be wrong; it has happened before. We’ll just have to see in the next 1/3/6/12 months.

Specialization is Key

I was reading Syl’s Monday post on GW2 when a particular section leaped off the page:

Some people still doubt that GW2 will manage without any holy trinity, but I actually do – and if there’s ever going to be more “dedicated” healing or tanking going on in a specific encounter, it will probably be a situation in which everyone must take turns or decides on a random player.

If you have attempted group content in WoW at any point in the last two years, you probably recoiled in horror as I did at the thought of looking forward to shared group responsibility. We have a term for that now – The Dance – and every indication that it was the principle cause of the nearly 2 million subscriber exodus.

After all, by making every player vital to the group’s success (e.g. everyone must Dance correctly), the strength of the group is reduced to that of its weakest member. And if we follow the “down with the holy trinity!” argument to its inevitable conclusion, we end up in Dance Dance Central.

When I asked whether Syl really wanted shared responsibility, the response was:

You mean, would I rather have groups share the responsibility of control or be flexible about it, rather than putting the entire responsibility and blame on just one person? of course I would. I think this is one big reason why WoW pugs were so horrible.

The sentiment is interesting to me, because I approach it from the 100% opposite direction.

There are some responsibilities that I do not trust other people to accomplish. I was the guy in school/college that would do all of the heavy lifting in the group project – picking the topic, doing the research, writing the paper – while you sailed to an easy A by reading two (of 10) paragraphs in front of the class.

Actually, “trust” is not even the operating word I am looking for, as that implies an uncertainty of contribution. It wasn’t a question of whether you would perform, or even how. It was a matter of your capacity for performance, and whether the final outcome would be better or worse with said contribution.

Is that arrogant? No.¹ Ability brooks no morality. Being better at the “game of school” did not/does not make me a better person, or someone else worse for their lack. The unilateral determination of the value of the contribution might be construed as arrogant, but the final grade was always a true arbiter. Just as the death of the boss is an arbiter of a raid strategy.

Which segues me back to raiding and the following claim: specialization is better for group-based activities.

People are NOT experts at everything, nor should they have to be. If the content requires precise movement at specified times, who do you want in that position? Probably a person meeting the following criteria: A) best internet connection, B) the most experience, and C) someone who wants the responsibility. Maybe you’re thinking long-term and want to get another guy trained and battle-tested. Maybe someone wants to branch out and test the tanking waters. That’s fine! Do what works for your team.

What no one wants is for the person chosen to randomly be the easily excitable, newbie friend raiding on WiFi. It’s not fun for him, it’s not fun for you, it’s not fun for anyone. It creates friction in group scenarios, even when you are raiding with good friends.

This brings me to Guild Wars 2, and two conditional claims/predictions.

1) Trinity specialization will be required to succeed at endgame content; or
2) Endgame content will be mostly trivial.

The “everyone can pitch in” group content philosophy is simply zerging. The “trinity should die” desire is the desire for Dance 2.0.

Syl goes on to mention:

combat that revolves around tanking and aggro, is different from combat that revolves about shared control and therefore needs less dedicated healing, too. tactically speaking it’s an interesting approach you can already find in many FPS online games where every player is carrying some type of rifle and team strategy, self-sufficiency, quick reactions and improvisation are where it’s at. okay, you can distrust the average MMO players currently out there to be any use at this type of cooperative game – a fair point, but not exactly a good argument against improving combat design. to ME the current combat is boring.

Putting aside the question of the actual value of teammates in CoD/BF/TF2 games (and the fact that a lot of FPSs are in fact class/role-based), I want to talk about improvisation. The ability to change strategies, to adapt to changing conditions, to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat… that was actually my favorite part of raiding in WoW. The Mimiron kill video was one of the most epic experiences in the game for me. Same with our first Yogg-Saron kill.

The rub is that improvisation requires room to screw up and not fail. In other words, improvisation requires a lower difficulty. It requires mistakes to not matter as much. I am not at all a fan of pass/fail mechanics, so I actually DO hope there is room for improvisation in GW2. But if a group of 5 Necromancers can clear all the content, chain rezzing each other, swapping weapons to “be the tank” when they are randomly the target of the boss, requiring no specialization at all (or worse, requiring everyone to “specialize” in everything)… well, have fun with that.

A certain continuum exists between the two extremes, but it is not as wide as many believe. The only way to reliably hit that mark, IMO, is to require specialization in tasks – specifically being able to choose the 1-2 people around which an encounter pivots – and extend the margins of victory for everyone else. Think the ooze-kiter in the Rotface encounter, or the two portal healers in Dreamwalker.

Allowing those 1-2 people to be anyone (tanks/healer/DPS) would be an amazing innovation, but I’m not entirely convinced that is what will be going on in GW2.

¹ Although it’s probably arrogant saying it.

“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.