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Temporary EAnity

EA has temporarily removed the loot boxes from Star Wars: Battlefront 2, right before the official launch of the game:

We hear you loud and clear, so we’re turning off all in-game purchases. We will now spend more time listening, adjusting, balancing and tuning. This means that the option to purchase crystals in the game is now offline, and all progression will be earned through gameplay. The ability to purchase crystals in-game will become available at a later date, only after we’ve made changes to the game. We’ll share more details as we work through this.

I am honestly quite surprised. The negative press surrounding GTA Online’s Shark Cards or Shadows of War’s single-player loot boxes affected zero change, but here we have EA, of all people, turning off the cash spigot right before the water main gets connected. Then again, EA did get mentioned in half a dozen news article for having the most-downvoted comment in Reddit history (-676,000 at the time of this writing). Not exactly the narrative you want to be having right before the game’s release.

It’s tempting to pat ourselves on the back, at least those of us who actually care about game design and our fellow human beings. But the victory feels… well, like EA says, “temporary.” They did the right thing… under withering criticism. It’s like a politician apologizing for a decades-old scandal – an apology is more than we can expect these days, but it would have been nice if they had apologized before it was news. Or, you know, never did the action in the first place.

Alas, here we are.

It will be interesting indeed to see under what conditions the microtransactions return in SWBF2, and what possible new permutations they might take in other EA games. Will Battlefield Whatever’s design be impacted by this learning experience? Is this a learning experience at all, or simply an unfortunately-timed (for EA stockholders) zeitgeist?

We already know that the suits from TakeTwo don’t give a shit:

It appears that the GTA Online/MyCareer model is going to be the standard for big Take-Two Games going forward. People have expected a GTA Online type environment for Red Dead Redemption 2, which launches next year, though Rockstar has not announced what its online features will be.

“One of the things we’ve learned is if we create a robust opportunity, and a robust world, in which people can play delightfully in a bigger and bigger way, that they will keep coming back,” Zelnick told investors. “They will engage. And there is an opportunity to monetize that engagement.”

And that sort of underscores the vice gamers are put in to begin with. SynCaine pointed out that anyone buying SWBF2 is complicit with its monetization scheme, even if they don’t spend cash on loot boxes. That is technically accurate. But by that same token so is anyone who bought GTA V, given the Shark Card shenanigans. Do we really need to commit to never touching Red Dead Redemption 2 or the inevitable GTA VI?

I dunno. On the one hand, I am obviously an idealist when it comes to the purity of elegant game design. When the pieces fit together, when the various game systems synergize so perfectly… it’s orgasmic. Microtransactions have literally no place in any such gaming schema, any more than the concession stand does for the symphony performance. The symphony or game might rely on outside money in order to exist originally (artists have to eat), but once created, the art does (and should) exist independently.

Also, Consumer Surplus. It’s a thing.

On the other hand, we live in an absurd universe in which any sort of meaning or value is surprising. Thus, EA’s capitulation here, however temporary, is something to be celebrated. I certainly don’t think any of us expected it, especially given the likelihood that whales would have justified the PR hit by buying thousands of dollars of loot boxes on Day 1. And even if EA hadn’t backed down, if it’s possible for you to enjoy playing the game, what particular sense does it make to deny oneself? They’re microtransactions, not blood diamonds. Go have fun – nothing matters anyway.

All things considered though, I do think I’m giving SWBF2 a pass for now. Who is buying a game at full MSRP a literal week before Black Friday? Wait a month or two, save some cash, play your thirty other Steam games, and see how it all plays out. At least, that’s my plan. You do you.

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Pay2Winside 2

According to Steam, I have not played Planetside 2 in over a month. There are a number of reasons for this, but the bottom line is that it has gotten increasingly bad for “drop in, shoot faces” kind of gameplay, which is what I have spent the prior 433 hours doing. Maybe it would be more entertaining in a Platoon (i.e. guild), but if I wanted social obligation, I would be playing WoW. Besides, I’m not entirely convinced that Platoon-play is all that fun given that the “metagame” in PS2 mainly revolves around either zerging occupied bases or babysitting empty ones. If you want to shoot faces, you are literally better off finding the WoW equivalent of “Blacksmith Bridge” in Arathi Basin by yourself.

What completely astounds me however is how tone-deaf the developers are.

Implants were introduced into PS2 a while ago, and they represent an extra loadout choice slash gear progression avenue. You get them randomly whenever you earn XP, they require energy to power (something like 0.5/second for the low-level ones), you earn Energy Chargers the same way, and finally you can combine 5 of the same Tier N Implant to get a random Tier N+1 Implant. Or you could buy random Implants or Chargers with in-game Certs or Station Cash. Cue ominous foreshadowing.

Up until a little while ago, Tier 3 Implants were as high as things went. Then Tier 4 Implants were introduced. Then everything below Tier 4 was nerfed to make Tier 4 viable. Then the drop-rate for those random Implants (and Chargers) you get free via XP were slashed. Given how the Implants actually give you some legitimately quantifiable gameplay advantages, players started questioning SOE about P2W concerns. The response?

Palm meet face:

But perhaps you want to give Smedley the benefit of the doubt. Then mosey on over to this Reddit thread:

No I don’t believe I said that [Implants are big money makers]. They do make money but we’re continuing to make adjustments to improve that. (Radar_X)

So we should expect a bigger P2W experience?

Should probably just uninstall PS2 now. (Twinki)

Depends on how you define P2W. If implants are P2W, then yes you may not like everything in the future. (Radar_X)

Oh good.

On the one hand, I understand that they have to keep the lights on and all that. On the other hand… yeah, no thanks. I very nearly bought another $15 Station Cash card at Walmart because it seemed as though SOE was actually going to have a Triple Station Cash sale this past Christmas. Since the Walmart card has an extra 500 SC on it, it ends up being $60 worth of currency for $15. Then I realized that the only SOE title I actually care about beyond PS2 was H1Z1, which… well, yeah. Given how far PS2 is going to “keep the lights on,” I am beginning to doubt the promises that H1Z1 won’t be selling guns and/or survival tools in the store.

I suppose we’ll have to wait and see sometime after SOE stops selling Early Access for $20.

That Michael Ironside AMA

If you are not familiar with Reddit, it’s… well, let’s just say it’s a thing. A thing that occasionally has “Ask Me Anything” threads from famous people, like Michael Ironside. You might be familiar with him from his work on Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars. Or, you know, any of the hundreds of classic movies he’s been in, including Total Recall, Starship Troopers, and Free Willy.

In any case, in his AMA he related had a rather interesting story about Splinter Cell:

Q: Hello, Mr. Ironside! I have to say that I liked your voice work as Sam Fisher in the Splinter Cell series. How do you feel about Ubisoft’s decision to not use you in the newest game? Also, any stories about your work on the games?

I think it’s a great idea for Ubisoft. They’ve gone to motion capture, and this spring I will be 65 years old. I don’t think anyone wants to pay money seeing a 65 year old Sam Fisher bounce around on set, killing and stumbling while he kills people. I wish them all the luck. I hope that franchise has a long and storied future.

I have to confess I’m not a gamer. And when they sent me the contract for the very first game, it was quite lucrative, and I said “absolutely, I will do this.” I thought it was going to be like PONG, and I would just have to introduce it.

My wife, actually, went out and bought a brand new SUV with some of the money.

When I got the script, it was very stiff, very inflexible, and very blood and violent.

And I didn’t want to do it. And told them I was going to give them back their money. They asked me what would it take to keep me on the project, and i said we would have to change the character, and give him some type of humanity. To their credit, they sat me down with the game creators, and we came up with the present Sam Fisher, who had an empathy and was not just a 2 dimensional killing machine. And we got as much humanity, I think that that format will allow.

And my wife didn’t have to give back her SUV.

ALso, what happened is, when you’re doing games, usually it’s one person in a booth doing their work, creating their character, and then the next person goes in, you usually never get to work or meet anybody. On the first 2 games, we brought the cast in, and we all did it together, so we had a sense of humanity. That was one of my stipulations.

I said “Working is like making love, if i do it by myself, it’s just masturbation. I’d rather have the other cast around.” And I think the proof is in the pudding, the game has had a pretty good set of legs on it.

I confess that I have never actually played any of the Splinter Cell games, which I realize makes highlighting this anecdote a little weird. Still, it is a bit encouraging to hear that by virtue of a single person, a group of developers were able to come together and change what would have (undoubtedly) been a more one-dimensional experience into one with a lot more texture. Somewhat less encouraging was the fact that Ubisoft felt like the killing machine script was good enough at the beginning, but I’ll give them a pass here.

In any case, this is still one of the best AMAs I have ever read. This Christian Bale story, this Starship Troopers trivia, these Highlander 2 moments with Sean Connery. Way good.

How Hardcore Will Wildstar Actually Be?

Keen brought up an interesting perspective last week in regards to Wildstar:

I keep hearing/reading that WildStar is going to be such a hardcore game not for the casual, console, [insert something with a core not hard enough] audience.  Yes, there are inaccessible 40-man raids.  You’re delusional if you think that WildStar is now or will ever be hardcore.  Even compared to Vanilla WoW (like WildStar often is) it’s ridiculously accessible and easy to level.  People were hitting 40+ in 3-4 days or less.

All it will take is a few exit surveys for NCSoft to step in and force accessibility.  “We’re losing subscribers because they can’t experience the content they want to play.”  It will never, ever, be more inaccessible than WoW.

It’s an interesting perspective to me because I was (and still am) prepared to take Carbine and the Wildstar devs on face value. There was another Reddit AMA last week that sort of doubled-down on the hardcoreness. You can read a much cleaner, more condensed version here. This rather epic deconstruction sums up a lot of miscellaneous things:

Q: When it becomes apparent in the next year that hardcore 40 man’s aren’t going to work because it’s not what people like to do anymore, what other ideas are you going to try?

CRB_Gaffer: This is a “gotcha” question, but I’ll answer it anyways since some variant of it comes up reasonably often.

Little aside here: Why is this “gotcha”? Well, let’s examine possible answers:

1) Say “yes, 40 mans won’t work in a year, we’ll roll to another system” – well obviously we don’t believe that, or we wouldn’t have done them. And if early testing were pointing that way, we would have already converted them.

2) Say “no, they’ll never change, even if no one plays them!” – well, obviously, we’d be idiots to not respond to player feedback; it’s what we do. They’re fun enough that they’ll get played, we’re confident.

3) Say “it’s entirely up to player feedback!” – that’s hardly giving a strong direction, and we know this one will be contentious – there’s not likely to be a consensus. Every interesting game design decision is a mix of having a vision and being willing to intelligently and rationally assess when to swerve from it if reality and vision collide.

4) If we say that contingently we’ll push other fallback ideas, then of course the player base will potentially rapidly become divided to say “DO THAT NOW!!!” or assume that our plan all along is to go that route, when in practice, anything we do in terms of long-term planning is to an extent contingency based. We’ll be MUCH more knowledgeable about the health of the systems in the long terms six months post-launch.

So, that’s kinda the definition of a gotcha question – there’s no simple answer that actually addresses the question.

There’s another issue; the phrasing “when it becomes apparent” that implies that you’re asking the question to people you think aren’t that smart to begin with.

One assumes that’s intentional; it creates the added issue that responding to the question potentially Pavlovian conditions folks asking us questions to be snarky, when generally we try to focus answers on intelligent, well-phrased questions (even contentious ones) to make sure we’re doing our best to improve the quality of dialogue. No offense intended if that phrasing was just unintentional and through poor communication skills! Anyways, a good policy in TL;DR form: “Don’t feed the trolls”

But what the heck! To answer concisely after the extended parenthetical:

If it turns out that gamers are no longer capable of enjoying large-scale raiding, at that time our cross-discipline group of folks will have a series of debates on what works, what doesn’t work, base it on the data we’ve pulled from the systems and talking with our fans, and either double down on the parts of the systems that work well, or innovate some new directions to move forward in.

But early feedback is that that’s a pretty hypothetical situation. ;) Cause, hell, they’re pretty fun, and we think the added fun of the deeper gameplay we get out of those fights outweighs the social overhead of maintaining large groups. But folks will prove us wrong or not.

There are enough Ins and Outs in that response to construct a burger franchise, but there you go. Vague PR bullshit or nuanced game design? While I find myself more inclined to wait and see, I must confess that the following responses seems a bit contradictory:

Q: Are you committed to keeping a natural progression of content? […] Do you plan on adding shortcuts to previous tiers of raids when new ones come out? Removal of attunements, nerfing fights, adding equivalent gear from casual and easy to obtain sources (see WoW patch 2.4)?

CRB_TimeTravel: This is a great question for four months from now. Our post-launch balancing plans will depend heavily upon the speed with which players consume the content and the # of players doing the consuming.

However, we definitely don’t want to simply invalidate our previous content when we release new stuff.

Q: I know this is far into the future, but I’m hoping you guys keep old content relevant. I think it would be a great way to get the more casual players to raid in older/easier raid instances and have the new raids maintain the benchmark for hardcore players.

CRB_TimeTravel: We definitely don’t want to make our older content irrelevant, so will be looking for ways to have an intelligent progression forward with gear and ability as the game matures post-launch.

Q: What are your plans for longterm raid progression in terms of gear? Will you be taking the WoW model of trivializing the oldest raid instances when new ones are released? or the EverQuest model of a strict progression system, or somewhere in between?

CRB_TimeTravel: Somewhere in between.

We do not want to trivialize our content, nor force players to do all of it before seeing anything new.

What “middle way” is there between “not invalidate older content” and “not force players to do all of it”? You can either skip tiers or you can’t. The fact that the last boss of any given raid tier is always harder than the first (few) boss(es) of the next tier is one of the reasons I have always considered things like attunements and the justifications for them to be asinine. “Linear progression” is never linear progression, at least not for the first half of the next instance. If the hardcore raiders get a handful of gimmie bosses, why not everyone else? What good is preserved by putting a hard, game-ending limit to a given guild’s progression when you’ve specifically crafted new bosses that that guild could defeat if you but got out of the way?

Ugh. I think “attunements” and “linear progression” are trigger words for me.

That being said, I am not entirely sure whether I share Keen’s “optimism” regarding raiding in Wildstar becoming more accessible. As mentioned, there is enough wiggle-room in the posts by Carbine devs to allow them to nerf the content based on low participation. More problematic is how exactly they plan on nerfing it. Many of the gameplay videos I have seen paint most of the bosses as “bullet hell” dances, even in the 5m dungeons. In a world in which something as simple as the Heigan Dance threatened to break guilds apart, I’m skeptical these devs will be able to thread that needle. Maybe the attacks will 3-shot you instead of 1-shot? Maybe there will be less “bullets?” As any PUG raid leader can tell you though, moving out of the fire and dodging the fire are two entirely different things.

In any case, I suppose we’ll see how things shake out a few weeks from now.

Wildstar AMA

There was an AMA by Jeremy Gaffney (Executive Producer) regarding Wildstar on Friday. Here were some of the interesting notes:

As someone who has left the MMO scene for quite some time now, do you think WildStar could pull me back in? (ex WoW player)

Our #1 market is probably ex-MMO players, truth be told. That’s many of us as well :) (source)

Subtle and straight-forward. I like it.

Your stand on “catch-up gear” content? Like if I want to get into raiding say about year after release and I of course need to get proper gear to get into raiding. So are you planning to do 5man dungeons with some godly gear or other catch-up mechanics?

We’ll want some catch-up mechanics that are also fair to the long-term raiders; I know the econ guys have thought but thank heavens that’s a ways out yet. (source)

Given the Wildstar team’s commitment to to anachronisms like attunements, I have to wonder about how exactly “catch-up gear mechanics” would even work. Blizzard is heading towards making all of Warlord’s LFR gear be non-tier, so I could see “ghetto-tier” gear as a means to help newer players catch up… but what about those attunements? Is it “fair to long-term raiders” for attunements to be relaxed after the content is no longer current? How is that any different than the traditional cry that content is being obsoleted?

By the way, attunements were dumb, are dumb, and will always be dumb.

Will it be possible to purchase high end gear or tier equivalent gear via the Auction House? In other words, given the existence of the CREDD system, will it be possible to buy power in this game with cash?

In general, nope. In practice, there may be a few BOE pieces of appropriate rarity/difficulty to acquire that spice up the mix, but buying power is a dangerous thing to systemize. (source)

 Fair enough.

The questing experience levels 1-6 is terrible (especially on Dominion side), why do your tutorials areas have so many quests that are not interactive for the player?

Mostly through focus testing with players of a variety of experience levels; you’ve probably played too many MMOs to want your hand held for long and don’t value the world and character introductions we do there (and why should you? You don’t know if those will pay off later and just want to check out the gameplay, which is rational).

We will likely add an option down the road for you to opt out. (source)

This is a subject that could almost be an entire series of blog posts by itself. Namely, the tension between clearly going after competitor’s subscribers (e.g. “Not in Azeroth anymore!”) and needing to be accessible for first-time MMO players. Because let’s be honest, the only real way you’re going to build word-of-mouth is by exciting the already-existing base, unless your base is already established via IP. Quite frankly, I’m a bit surprised that we haven’t seen more MMO companies come out with mid-range or even end-game gameplay in their beta right from the start. I mean, I guess even veterans will need a little bit of time to acclimate to the new environment, but you need them to be excited about the long-term future, not forcing them to spam-run tutorials every beta weekend.

Many people have had a really bad first impression of the game (usually first few hours of play), what would you say to these people to sway them into trying the game again?

Getting people back into the game is tricky (you form an impression and stick with it) – we change so much month to month that I don’t expect to re-earn the eyeballs of many folks who played in the past and left (even if we fixed some of what bothered them).

My plan personally is that you play what your friends are playing; the one thing more than any other email/ad/PR campaign we can do is get people liking the game itself and convincing their friends to come back in – thus Friend Passes, etc. (source)

That… is astonishingly honest and straight-forward. I have a few friends that pre-ordered Wildstar already, and they will pretty much be the only reason I purchase the game given my previous beta impressions.

Class balance is on going but their seems to be a mostly agreed tier list, with Spellslingers and Medics at the bottom in terms of DPS, and by a fair margin. What approach are you taking to get classes more in line with each other? Nerfing the top classes, or buffing the lower ones?

We err on the side of buffing rather than nerfing, but not to the point of insane mudflation. We’ll pretty regularly rebalance classes so that none is too gimped or OP (some drops are slated around this directly, while some will happen in each drop for higher priority stuff). (source)

I would say that erring on the side of buffing is the opposite of the WoW approach, but I don’t think classes ever got OP when someone else got nerfed, so… yeah.

Currently WildStars PVE Group Content ins linear, like in vanilla wow or tbc (the good times). With Wotlk and multilayer-content, problems like content skipping occured. Are you aware of that and are your gonna stick with the linear system? How will you ensure, that the linear system will work successfull on longterm for all different kind of raidguilds (casual, average, hardcore).

Adventures are intended to be heavily NON-linear, and raids are intended to have a fair amount of weekly variation (room ordering, sub-bosses, etc.) for just such reasons – if what we have is well received at launch, we’ll add more. (source)

I’m pretty sure they were talking about two different things here. I’m not sure about anyone else’s guild, but I absolutely hated the random variables in boss ordering (e.g. which drakes were in the cage, which bosses activated first, etc) as it required explaining the entire fight and every variation every time to everyone.

Q: In most MMO’s the crafted gear/items don’t have any real impact on endgame… What’s WildStar’s stance on this?

Our goal is that crafted items are competitive with the best items, but usually need to be earned through those same activities (either by the wearer or by the crafter) to keep things balanced. (source)

I have a difficult time trying to determine if this sort of thing would work for me. If I can’t craft the epic sword before being able to kill the guy who drops an epic sword, there doesn’t seem to be much of a point to crafting (beyond playing the AH). On the other hand, I could sorta see this working if the raid boss had a much higher chance to drop the crafting component necessary to craft the epic sword, such that my profession had value in reducing the randomness of drops. This would require the crafting component to be personal loot though, I think.

I currently play GW2. what’s one good reason I should stop and start playing your game?

Don’t! Guild Wars 2 is an excellent game as well; respect to MO and the other arena.net devs. (source)

If I was less of a cynical bastard, I would be pretty impressed with this response. Alas, both MMOs are from NCSoft, so…

Smedbombs

John Smedley, the president of SOE, did a Reddit AMA a little while ago and dropped some bombs.

If you could relaunch a shutdown title which one would you pick and what would you do differently this time?

SWG. I would do everything differently.

SWG PLAYERS – OUR NEXT GAME (not announced yet) IS DEDICATED TO YOU. Once we launch it… you can come home now. (source)

Here are some more snippets:

His response to the closing of Free Realms was rather depressing:

1) Are you planning on adding more family-friendly options? First there was Toontown Online, then there was Free Realms, and CWA. Is there another youth-oriented game planned?

1) No. No more kids games. Kids don’t spend well and it’s very difficult to run a kids game. Turns out Kids do mean stuff to each other a lot. (source)

There was another question/answer that I felt was rather interesting, concerning card games:

Will Legends of Norrath also be sunsetted in the near future?

no. Actually after seeing what Blizzard did with Hearthstone it’s given us some other ideas…. LoN is an awesome card game. We can take that to the next level. (source)

The whole WoW-clone phenomenon is well established, but I still find it interesting seeing it take place in real-time.

There And Back Again?

I came across a thread on Reddit which was a pining for the “old days” of MMOs when you either grouped up or didn’t get to actually play the game. Which, now that I think about it, is a scenario not all that different from empty FPS servers. Anyway, the top-rated comment concluded with this:

The truth of the matter is, those of us that grew up on the hardcore MMOs, we’ve already done it. Most of us just don’t want to do it again. I don’t want to play a MMO that takes over a year to hit the level cap. I don’t want to play a MMO where I have to stand around for hours before I get to play. I don’t want to play a MMO where I can permanently lose everything I’ve done in the last few hours. I’ve already done that; I don’t want to do it again. The novelty of the MMO is gone. There are better ways to enjoy my time.

There is a nuance to this argument that I don’t see all that often, and I’d be interested in what other veteran MMO players have to say about it. It’s one thing to say that once some auto-grouping functions are released, like LFD or LFR, that there is no removing them. But put those aside for a moment and ask yourself: how many times do I feel like I could start over in a “pure” MMO (whatever you define that as)?

Maybe the question is nonsensical, considering we technically “start over” each time we play a new game. On the other hand, I’m not entirely convinced another MMO could bribe me enough to get back into raiding as a full-time job again. Even if your game of choice was EVE, how willing would you be to starting over in a completely new game with similar time-investment requirements? Still willing to spend 1-2 years of real-time building up a skill set? Or do these sort of investment mechanics have diminishing returns regardless of “dumbing down” or other streamlining that might go on?