Blog Archives

Lockboxes

Tyler over at MMOBro makes the case for “getting over” lockboxes in games. I found the post interesting for several reasons, which I will get into in a bit. However, I do want to point out in the beginning that I agree with the premise: lockboxes aren’t going anywhere.

Even though they should. Specifically, into the garbage bin of bad game design.

One of the first of Tyler’s points is that lockboxes don’t literally destroy games. To which I would reply: not directly. Was the first iteration of Diablo 3 unplayable? Nope. Plenty of people were able to play the game just fine… for given amounts of fine.

From my perspective, the game was essentially broken in half. ARPGs in general (and especially Diablo) revolve around killing crowds of bad guys and hoping for good loot to drop, and the dopamine feedback loop simply didn’t exist when you could straight-up buy way better gear from the in-game AH. I was killing monsters hoping to get gold to buy better gear, rather than having any illusion that a monster might drop gear for me.

Perhaps even more problematic in Diablo 3’s case were the endgame difficulties. Since players could shop around and directly buy the best possible gear from a million other players’ drops, the endgame was balanced around Resistances and other stats that would be all but impossible to get within your own game sans AH. In other words, since you could buy good gear, the game designers had to create challenges that required that gear for it to be worthwhile, thereby creating cash-required progression.

Now, you might say that Diablo 3’s system wasn’t technically lockboxes at all. Semantics, I say. The point is that if you can buy power for cash, the player incentives in the game change, as do developers’ ultimate design goals.

But what about non-power purchases? Tyler starts out in the post by saying:

It can be a little irritating to see some gorgeous mount or awesome costume that you’ll never get unless you dump a small fortune into gambling boxes, but how much impact is that having on your moment to moment gameplay, really?

Later on, however, he gets to this part:

I also don’t think we should give up the fight to keep direct purchases part of MMO business models. Something I find frustrating about SW:TOR’s lock[box] obsession is not so much the boxes themselves, but the fact that almost nothing good ever gets added to the cash shop for direct sale.

That is precisely why this business model is so pernicious. As Tyler notes, there are plenty of MMOs out there which have survived just fine almost entirely on the backs of their lockbox revenue. Tyler was making that point in context of refuting lockboxes as short-term cash grabs, but the fact that they are in fact long-term revenue streams is more damning, IMO.

Lockboxes are long-term revenue streams because designers devote significant time to adding more stuff in them at direct expense to the rest of the game. Which makes perfect, rational sense. Under a traditional Buy-2-Play model, you get more money by making a better game. Under anything else, you get more of that game-adjacent thing, which NEVER improves the gameplay experience itself. Because it is never a part of the actual game.

Later, game designers get this defense:

And let’s stop demonizing developers for adding lockboxes to games. […] They’re just trying to turn a profit and earn a living, like everyone else in our capitalist society.

I mean… that kind of justifies anything, right? Mylan was just trying to turn a profit with the EpiPen hike in this capitalist society, Martin Shkreli was just trying to turn a profit with that AIDS drug gouge, and so on. Nothing nefarious about that; it’s all just business. “Business” being defined here as consequence-free personal enrichment and erosion of all consumer surplus, of course.

As I mentioned at the beginning, lockboxes aren’t going anywhere in spite of their abhorrent, exploitative, design-destroying influences, precisely because they work. And to be clear, lockboxes work the same way that cigarettes “work,” with similar (metaphorical) long-term effects. Lockboxes never, in any way, ADD anything of value to the game design itself; all of those cool mounts and skins could have been added for achievements, as rewards for skill, at the end of a long quest chain, or anywhere at all that reinforces the core gameplay loop.

At best, lockboxes funds game development in a roundabout way. Which sort of begs the question as to why these designers don’t just go full Konami and get into the Pachinko business to which they clearly aspire. Or, you know, perhaps make a product worth purchasing on its own merits.

Where Are All the Bodies?, pt 2

Almost exactly two years ago, I asked “Where are all the bodies?” in terms of a trend of flight from MMOs. Last week, Wilhelm presented the SuperData Research group’s June report. The two slides of note are below:

Hmm.

Hmm.

Research2

HMM.

As pointed out in the comments over on TAGN, the accuracy of numbers and legitimacy of the research company itself might be in question. For one thing, neither FFXI nor FFXIV are even on that list. The absence of Guild Wars 2 makes a little sense given the criteria for inclusion (subscription option), but the others? I dunno. Perhaps they are being implied in the missing 26% of market share. Which, incidentally, covers $756 million of the total revenue on the chart.

In an attempt to compare the subscription revenue graph to the last update from MMOData.net, I got the following result:

Extremely scientific, I assure you.

Extremely scientific, I assure you.

My methodology was to squish the one graph until the years lined up. Regardless, I have a hard time imagining the precipitous drop in subscription revenue on their chart is correlated in reality. There is a very real decline in overall MMO population – we have reached the same population levels from mid-2008 at this point – but revenue can’t be that bad. Can it?

What is sorta interesting though is in the small text below the graph, which states the data was pulled from “36.9 million digital gamers.” If you take that figure and multiply it by the market share, you get 13,284,000 as the WoW population. Of course, WoW did not have 13+ million subscribers in 2013. Discrepancy! Or is it? If you assume a 5% churn rate each month, at the end of the year you are left with 7,178,143. That is somewhat close to the estimated 7.6 million from this year. In other words, it’s entirely possible that 13+ million players played WoW at some point during the year and 6 million of them cycled out.

On the other hand, when you plug EVE into that same equation, you get 1,107,000 players throughout 2013. So… maybe it’s all bullshit.

Accuracy aside, I think the takeaway from all this is twofold. First, the MMO market has clearly peaked and we are transitioning into a much lower (presumed) equilibrium. Second, it’s still surprising how money there is in the genre. I mean, look at SWTOR there. $165 million in revenue last year? It actually took this Forbes article to kind of shock me into the realization (emphasis added):

And what may be a surprise to many is that Star Wars: The Old Republic is actually #4 on the list, bringing in $165M in revenue last year. While much of the game went free-to-play after a disappointing debut, there’s still a subscription model that has made the MMO profitable for EA. Often SWTOR is regarded as a cautionary tale in the industry in terms of bloated budgets, over-ambition and emulating competitors, but looking at the numbers, the game has evolved into a profitable enterprise for EA, and has made even its massive budget back at this point.

I don’t even know if that is true for sure, but remember, SWTOR budget was somewhere in the neighborhood of $200 million. So… are we still allowed to call the game a “failure?” The criteria gets a little goofy when you are making ~44% more than the paragon of subscription growth¹, EVE. We can maybe say that it could/should have earned more, but (presumably) profitable businesses really speak for themselves.

As always, I believe key to success is keeping realistic expectations and budgeting around that. If you need 500,000 or 1 million subscriptions to stay afloat, maybe you should calm your shit, Icarus. The entire market is like 18 million subs, and more than a third of those are locked down in Blizzard HQ. If you can get by with 50k or 100k, you should have no problems capturing a least a portion of the 500k+ people that seem to appear on MMO release days and leave a month later. Now more than any other time, you need to start small and work your way up.

¹ Which is more historical fact than current event. As far as I’m aware, EVE has lost subs at this point like all mortal MMO endeavors.

Unfair Impressions: TSW, Days 3-4+

Day 3

As mentioned previously, my spirits were up quite a bit from the doldrums of the first two days in The Secret World. Knowing that it was expected that one unlock all the “inner wheel” abilities on the Ability Wheel lowered the existential pressure of permanent choices. And as soon as I confirmed with a commenter that, yes, TSW did have an in-game Search feature for abilities, the mental wheels started turning quite pleasurably. I finished a series of entirely pleasant and non-frustrating quests, got 7 more AP, and then starting picking things that maximized my synergy.

Quests like this were refreshingly novel as well.

“Quests” like this were refreshingly novel.

My present loadout is something like follows:

  • Delicate Strike – single-target blade builder (+10% Penetration chance)
  • Blade Torrent – AoE blade builder (+Affliction DoT)
  • Balanced Blade – AoE blade finisher
  • The Business – single-target pistol builder (+Weakened Healing)
  • Shootout – channel pistol finisher
  • Above the Law – Targeted AoE cooldown damage field

The other relevant passives meanwhile are:

  • Lick Your Wounds – Stacking HoT when you deal damage
  • Immortal Spirit – HoT when you Penetrate
  • Gnosis – Hitting Weakened targets = 33% chance for more damage
  • Dark Potency – Hitting Afflicted targets = Stacking +Penetration buff

You don’t really have to know anything about TSW to sort of see what’s going on there. Blade Torrent hits everything and then gives them an Affliction DoT, which triggers a +Penetration buff for me, which increases my chance to trigger a self-HoT. Meanwhile, I get a baseline HoT for just hitting things. The Business deals damage, puts up a Weakened debuff, which makes further hits deal extra damage 33% of the time.

Actually, the synergy isn’t really all that there. The two weapons themselves don’t really have much synergy with one another. There doesn’t seem to much of a point to not simply spam Blade Torrent, even when I have enough combo points to use my AoE finisher. Using the single-target pistol attack to Weaken and deal bonus damage sounds cool, but I’m mostly facing small groups of weak enemies right now. Even I were facing a single target, the Aff –> +Pen +HoT deal sounds a whole lot better, especially since the Weaken ability I have is essentially the Mortal Strike debuff.

But like I said, the wheels are turning. “Hmm… well, the Shotgun features a baseline ability to hit things in a cone, and you can make that give everyone a Weakened debuff that results in 30% less damage done. That’s certainly better than a single-target attack that gives -Healing on mobs.” Then you run across a higher-tier Shotgun passive called 12 Gouge that causes enemies you Penetrate to become Weakened (-30% damage) that starts making your mind melt in interesting ways.

  1. Oh, so if I spam Blade Torrent, everything around me gets an Affliction DoT, I get a +Penetration buff, then if I Penetrate anything from spamming the attack they get Weakened (-30% damage), which then can trigger the 33% chance for them to take extra damage.
  2. And I get two different HoTs.
  3. What does a 12 Gouge katana even mean?

No doubt there are better, more efficient combos in the game that exploit synergies I don’t even know are possible; I have been limiting my scope to mostly inner-circle abilities, which the exception of 12 Gouge. But, again, this whole exercise has significantly increased my respect for the game… at least in this area.

I mean, this part is, as the kids say, “totes fun.” However, actual combat so far amounts to me spamming one attack over and over. Which is not all that different than spamming Wrath a thousand times in WoW, of course; I’m not even out of the equivalent of Goldshire yet. Nevertheless, I remain wary as to how engaging the combat is really going to be once I “finish” the ability-planning part. And I wonder how much of the fighting game design was sacrificed at the altar of ability synergy complexity.

WoW combat is fun, to me, even when I’m killing entirely trivial mobs. It’s visceral in a way I can’t entire describe. TSW combat is not… also in a way I can’t entirely describe.

Day 4

It is funny and sad, all at once, how much difference a little gear makes in an MMO.

After the fun of planning build synergies the other day, I was facing the reality of what amounted to a number of long slogs against single enemies with 30+ seconds TTK (time to kill). Worse, I was getting little-to-no sense of when/how you would ever use the Dodge button or circle-strafing in TSW. Sure, avoid the bad stuff/targeting reticule on the ground. But beyond that? All the enemies reminded me of the unquestionably lame zombies of Orr in GW2, with their 300% movement speed and amazing clipping powers.

Know what's fun? Not fighting these mobs.

Know what’s fun? Not fighting these mobs.

I died a few times, as you can imagine, against single mobs. Specifically, I died to enemies who never seemed to target the ground with anything – they simply beat my face in, old-school. The worst part of new games is when you fail for reasons you don’t quite understand, or are unable to prevent. I knew I was probably dead within the first 5 seconds of the combat encounter, but it took another 15 before I officially gave up the ghost. I could have probably ran away, but I wanted to know specifically why I was dying, and to get a sense of what I could do to prevent/slow down the process. The auto-HoTs weren’t enough, for sure. But it seemed like only the Assault Rifle and Blood Magic “weapons” allowed for self-healing spamming. Which meant I was going to end up with seven of nine (har har) weapon skills halfway filled, likely putting me signifigantly behind the power curve that would have existed had I stuck with the same two weapons.

Then I got gear. Partly from the “subscriber rewards” I received for having purchased the game for $15 via Steam, and the rest from the AH. Mobs are just falling over now. The stronger ones still take a while, and I still derive no visceral thrill from killing them, but my HoTs essentially keep me above 80% HP at all times.

You'd be surprised how big a difference it makes. Or maybe you wouldn't.

You’d be surprised how big a difference it makes. Or maybe you wouldn’t.

Maybe there will be fun combat later on, but it’s getting increasingly difficult IMO to use that as a proper excuse. With a few weapon exceptions, GW2 was fun right out of the gate, for example. And it all seems extra silly when hypothetical games like SavageSun somehow manage to feel fun to play even when you only have two abilities.

In any case, this will likely be my last Unfair Impressions for TSW. I don’t plan to stop playing necessarily, but I think these few articles have adequately served their purpose – namely, presenting my impressions of a game that I had no particular desire to play in the first place. While the chances that I play TSW in the long-term is less than zero, my opinion of it is certainly better than what it was when I started it. If I play it more, it will be in the context to experience the narrative and quests.

Which sounds great until you realize I said the same thing about SWTOR.

Where Are All the Bodies?

WoW subscriber losses since Q1 2011: 2,900,000.
SWTOR subscriber losses since Q1 2012: ~700,001.
Aion subscriber losses since 2011: ~600,000¹.
RIFT subscriber losses since 2011: 350,000¹.
LoTRO subscriber losses since 2011: 300,000¹.
EVE subscriber losses since Q2 2011: ~20,000¹.

Where are all the bodies?

Talk about fiscal cliffs…

It is seductively easy to imagine the MMO landscape as a zero-sum, closed universe. One developer’s bone-headed design mistake is another MMO’s gain. “Guild Wars 2 is going to nail the coffin shut on SWTOR/steal another million from WoW.” But it is fact that there are less people playing “traditional” MMOs today than there were in mid-2009. And there were fewer game options back then!

The graph up there is somewhat misleading in two ways. It does not represent the entire MMO market (browser-based games, etc), so it is entirely possible that in the journalistic sense the “MMO” market is doing perfectly fine. But it is misleading in the other direction too: do you really care how Second Life and Dofus and Asian MMOs are doing? There are a lot of games you will never play and/or people you cannot possibly play with that are propping up those numbers. The Truth™ is liable to paint a much bleaker picture.

I think we may need to start entertaining the notion that the entire genre – as we know it – has peaked. Not just the hot topic of F2P vs Subs, but the whole damn shebang. Classical arguments like “WoW lost subs because grinds/attunements/etc are good” become embarrassingly moot (if they were not already). Where are the bodies?

Whoever is leaving does not appear to be coming back for a second date, or even meeting new people; they have simply vanished back into the ether. Speculation on the whys seems moot as well, because there is zero indication the ex-pats transition anywhere else. Rather than go to the alternative MMOs that offer grinding/feature no grinding, they simply go away.

On a tangentially related subject, yesterday was my one-year WoW anti-anniversary:

A year ago yesterday I was doing Firelands dailies.

So… we have located at least one body. A body with an extra $179.88 in its pocket at that.

Where are the rest?

¹ Based on eyeballing this chart, which hasn’t been updated in a while.

Slow News Day

Man. If only there was, like, something interesting going on the world of gaming. You know, some tidbit of under-reported MMO news or some noteworthy announcement that happened in the last 24 hours or so. If it could demonstrate my somewhat embarrassing lack of forecasting abilities, that would be great too.

So, yeah, SWTOR going F2P.

Less than 1 million subs now, but totally “well over” 500k, aka the event horizon of the money hole. There is not much else to say that has not been said in a dozen other blogs in your RSS, although I am inclined to point to Green Armadillo’s analysis over at Player Vs Developer for one-stop shopping; I agree with basically everything the dasypodidae said. Especially the confusion as to how a F2P model is supposed to work when the stuff being pay-gated is probably what the vast majority of players don’t care about, e.g. endgame.

My contribution to the discussion, such as it is, will be the following:

A fine company with a long history of good decision-making.

In other news, I finished Dead Island over the weekend, and just completed Orcs Must Die 2 mere hours ago, having played the entire Story-mode in co-op. Official reviews of both and others will be forthcoming. Then again… maybe not. The recent Steam Summer Sale haul included the following:

  • Crusader Kings 2
  • The Walking Dead
  • Prince of Persia Complete Pack
  • The Longest Journey + Dreamfall
  • Arma 2 (aka DayZ)
  • 2K Collection (aka Spec Ops: the Line, Civ5, Darkness 2)
  • …and a truly embarrassing amount of indie games

I almost pre-purchased Borderlands 2 since it was $40 via Dealzon, before I realized that I am addicted to the thought of getting deals on videogames more than the actual playing thereof. At least, that is the only possible conclusion looking at my (digital) library. I was feeling kinda bummed out at letting the Borderlands 2 deal slip away though – while it was never supposed to be a sort of Day 1 purchase to me, I was definitely looking forward to it sooner rather than later – until my friend said “Steam Winter Sale.” God dammit.

I am looking forward to hitting up SWTOR once it goes F2P though, assuming GW2 plays out as I expect and I don’t do a full relapse with MoP. Throwing down $15 for the box a week or so from now is not asking much, but like I mentioned earlier, it is all about the dealz. And it is hard to argue with “free several months from now” when there is plenty to do in the midterm.

SWTOR Drops an EVE in Size

In other words, SWTOR lost 400,000 subscriptions in the last three months:

Star Wars: The Old Republichas dropped from 1.7 million active subscribers to 1.3 million, publisher Electronic Arts said today in an earnings statement.

That’s a loss of nearly 25% for the massively multiplayer online role-playing game, or 400,000 subscribers. […]

Update: In a conference call this afternoon, EA said the decrease was indeed due to “casual and trial players” cycling out of the game.

It is worth noting, of course, that the 1.3 million current subscribers is circa March 31st; things may have stabilized or gotten worse sense then.

Remember the whole brouhaha concerning the free month of game time given to Bioware’s “most valued players?” That took place two weeks into April. So while that may still have been a cynical move to prop up subscription numbers, we can be reasonably certain that the 1.3 million figure is not being finessed by anything (the 1.7 million figure at the beginning of the year had some vague language).

I’m not sure I’m going to follow SWTOR with the same level of attention I give to WoW’s subscription/raiding numbers, but for some future reference, here is an Xfire screenshot:

I… guess that’s a downward trend?

I personally don’t like using Xfire as a metric – the sample of players here are playing SWTOR for 5.3 hours at a time if I’m reading that right, and I’d assume even happily subbed players play less over time – but there you go. Damning evidence of EAware’s hubris and impending downfall, or signs of a much healthier MMO than most releases have achieved in the last few years. Obviously 400k is nothing to sneeze at, but 1.3 million is much better than analyst predictions of 800k.

Spin that narrative however you please.

Doing Bioware Some Favors

I was really perplexed about Bioware’s recent marketing flops concerning SWTOR, just like approximately ten thousand other bloggers. At least, I was perplexed until I hit up their job postings page and realized they are looking for a Marketing Analyst. Glancing at the requirements only confirms my suspicions:

  • Analyzes performance of strategic marketing campaigns to acquire new consumers and cross-promote games to retain and maximally monetize players against established benchmarks and or forecast objectives
  • Analyzes consumer behavior and response to media investment and creative messages
  • Using data-driven insights, recommends actions to improve campaign performance.
  • Collaborates with other areas of marketing, (including brand marketing, marketing management, acquisition and retail teams, online & social media marketing, CRM) as well as product development and product management teams to validate campaign content and ensure programs are effectively reaching customers
  • Candidate should have a good knowledge of general marketing paradigms and standard campaign management and measurement strategies along with video game industry experience

Yep. Bioware clearly doesn’t have anyone over there with those qualifications.

But you know what? I am a self-starter team player. So, Bioware, I am going to give you some marketing advice for free – just have the intern print off two copies of this post and send the other one to HR as my application, and we’ll call it even. Deal? Alright.

1) Words matter.

I would have thought this was an easy lesson to learn from the Mass Effect team – considering that even the Better Business Bureau acknowledged the ME3 endings constituted false advertising – but perhaps the teams are too compartmentalized. In any event, the basic idea here is that it matters what you say and how you say it. Let’s look at what you put out in your promotion:

As a thanks for being one of our most valued players, all active subscriber accounts with a Level 50 character as of April 12, 2012, 12:00 PM CDT, 5:00 PM GMT, will receive 30 days of game time** at no charge in appreciation for your support and loyalty.

Yes, I am sure someone thought they were so terribly clever in that meeting for including the qualifier “one of,” as that allows you to claim that non-level 50s can also be included in the category of “most valued players.” Unfortunately, it also matters how you say things. And in this case, the implication is that even if a sub-50 player is included in the most valued category, you nevertheless are not “appreciating” their support and loyalty in the same way. In fact, the whole framework of the promotion is dumb, since levels have nothing at all to do with loyalty; if you wanted to reward loyalty, give a free month to the people who subscribed continuously for the last 3-4 months.

But I understand, there are probably specific metrics out there showing that specifically the players at the level cap need an incentive to stick around a little longer. In which case you may as well make the free month as broad as possible considering the promotion will imply that you’ve fucked up your MMO either way; having compelling endgame content is damn near the entire point of themepark MMOs, as that is where you will inevitably end up spending most of your time. Unless you unsub right after hitting the cap… oh, wait.

Bottom line: a turd can hold only so much polish. Don’t evoke loyalty and “most valued players” when in reality you are offering compensation for bored level 50s.

2) Play up the retraction.

Or as Cave Johnson would say, “When life gives you lemons, have your engineers invent combustible lemons and burn life’s house down.”

Dr. Greg Zeschuk came out and mentioned that the free month of game time will be extended to non-level 50s. That is a good step, of course, probably necessary even. But what the retraction doesn’t do is connect all the dots laying out there. I’m not talking about the dots concerning the health of the game (or potential lack thereof). I’m talking about how players have until April 22nd to earn their one month of free game time by hitting level 50 or some combination of high-level alts.

Right now, you can buy SWTOR for $39.99 from Origin, which of course comes with a free month. But if you manage to hit the level cap within the seven days between this post going live and the promotion ending, you will get a second month for free. If that wasn’t an intentional marketing move, it should have been. I’m damn near tempted to try it myself.

3) Fill that Marketing Analyst position ASAP

You don’t actually need someone fancy. You just need a somewhat normal person, or someone capable of passing for normal, who is both willing and allowed to tell you something is a bad idea. Had I been in the meeting that spawned this promotion, my hand would have been the first one up after the presentation, even if I had a level 50.

Hindsight is 20/20, but come on. This sort of thing shouldn’t have passed the smell test.

SWTOR Will (Probably) Be Fine

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.

So, In A Nutshell

From what I played over the weekend, Star Wars: The Old Republic is probably worth the $60.

This is not to say there were no pressing issues afoot. Light/Dark side issues aside, some of the game mechanics feel they came out of a time capsule buried when Gary Gygax was still alive. Talent trees? How quaint. But seriously, there was another matter which was important enough to submit proper beta feedback about:

For serious.

I am not sure who was the first game designer who thought it would be fun to present players with the dilemma of stopping mid-quest/dungeon to trek all the way back to their trainer to get Rank 3 of Explosive Shell for it’s increased damage, or simply Troopering (*rimshot*) on without it, but they deserve a Rank VII Punch to the face. If there was some kind of RP scene showing you how to get a little more juice out of your grenade shots or whatever, I could understand and appreciate that. But if I can level up in the field and magically grow stronger and tougher to kill from one moment to the next, I should be able to get that +10-20 damage in those same moments. Even Gygax let our Fireballs deal 8d6 damage when we went from 7th to 8th level!

Also, this isn’t a complaint per se, but if you roll a female anything, hope you like butts.

The Ass-Cam of Star Wars: The Old Republic

Mind the gap.

The SWTOR Ass Cam© is not over-utilized, but is something I don’t remember during my Jedi “Why so serious” Knight playthrough.

Trapeeze accident, thanks for asking.

Finally, Bieber done grew up on Korriban:

Lucas::Jar-Jar as Bioware::???

That about sums up my Star Wars shenanigans. I won’t see anyone at release, but definitely at the first price drop and/or after we see how the endgame shakes out and/or after we learn by what voodoo magicks Bioware plans to use in rolling out timely content patches. Even a phoned-in Molten Front daily hub would likely be over three hours of voiced work for 8 different classes.

I do wish SWTOR the best of luck. The better they do, the more likely Blizzard gets off their lazy “$1 billion in cash we don’t know what to do with” asses, and the more gamers win.

P.S. I hope there is an achievement for getting to level 50 with zero Social Points.

Ye Olde Republica

After spending roughly 15-20 hours with the Star Wars beta this weekend, I am telling my financial advisers to upgrade The Old Republic from “junk status” to “maybe after the first few patches.” There have no doubt been hundreds of beta impressions out there, so allow me to skip the foreplay and write the impression that I wanted to read on Friday.

Actually, let’s have some foreplay first, so we all start on the same “lights on or off” page.

Preface: Lights On

I am not that much of a Star Wars “fan.” I very much enjoy the setting and general zeitgeist, but I feel its true conflict and drama potential is irreparably crippled by the inane, one-dimensional Good vs Evil aspects of the mythology. As someone commented in SWTOR General Chat on Saturday, “Jedi strive to be as Data in all things.” Perhaps the monastic order bit makes Jedi less of the Lawful Good cliche hero, but in many ways this is worse because they do not go far enough. Going all dojo as the only means of controlling an inherently corrupting Force… now that would interesting. What is orders of magnitude less interesting are do-gooders who strive to have no relationship with any they save, and otherwise go out of their way to be as forgettable as possible. Makes for some compelling stories, let me tell you. Oh wait, you probably already know since none of the movies involved Jedi actually behaving Jedi-ish.

The above is important to know precisely because, having played KOTOR previously, I believed the talent at Bioware was criminally underutilized in making yet another Star Wars game. I was more than fine with having “good or evil” consequences for certain dialog options, but when “good” is being defined so… brainlessly, it snaps my suspension of disbelief. And on this front, I want to report two things: A) the Light side is indeed being as inanely adjudicated as ever, and B) Bioware is doing the best they can anyway.

For example (I wouldn’t consider these spoilers, but whatever):

In #5, refusing to have sex with the guy gives you Dark Side points. No, seriously.

I numbered those pictures so I could provide additional context into how monstrously dumb they are, but you know what? They speak for themselves. Well, except for #5, which still boggles my mind. In what universe does it make sense for an Imperial Agent to get Light Side points for sleeping with a guy threatening to blow her cover? And to get Dark Side points for refusing?! Now, I did [Flirt] with the guy a few times, but does that somehow justify what would amount to rape in several States (since coercion was involved)? And keep in mind that this is the same game where Jedi kissing is the inevitable path to the Dark Side.

Clearly the Light Side is in favor of prostitution and no-strings-attached casual sex.

In which case… Light Side it is.

Jedi Knight, Level 7.

This is probably everyone’s default choice, so I figured it would be as good a place as any. I did not get a chance to play every class’s starting area, but out of the ones I did, this one was the absolute worst. I almost uninstalled by the time level 5 rolled around.

It has been said by others before, but you never quite realize how unbelievably polished and solid WoW’s combat system feels until you try other games. I played in both Warhammer Online’s and Aion’s beta, and all of them (SWTOR included) feel ever so slightly off. This game is a lot closer than the others however. Indeed, by the end of my total experience I could probably accept this sort of combat as a new Normal.

There is no auto-attack, and you don’t miss it. As a melee, the time inbetween the 1.5 second GCD is filled with parries and sparks and other exciting things. Some people have pooh-poohed the fact that you will be taking point-blank blaster fire and lightsaber hits until your HP reaches zero, as if 30 years of RPGs with exactly the same goddamn thing never happened. In fact, I remember whacking on a droid in KOTOR for 5 solid minutes, because my dual-bladed lightsaber had trouble with his 20/– DR.

Combat is exciting as a Jedi Knight, and in general, for several reasons. One, you get Force Leap early, which means you are constantly flying towards mobs ala warriors in WoW. Two, and in somewhat of an innovation on the MMO formula, mobs actually hang out in logical groups, typically in 3s and 4s. Since you get cool AoE moves early as well, my Jedi was flying into groups of Flesh Raiders, stunning the weak ones with a spin attack, using a reactive off-the-GCD move when I parried something, and then working a rotation otherwise. Not as solid as WoW, but close. Then again, Force Leap (aka Charge) does actually work off/up ledges, across obstacles, and otherwise doesn’t fail because a pebble or twig was in the way.

Storywise though, I am not a fan of the Jedi Knight. No hooks to keep me interested, no interesting choices; basically a snooze-fest.

Sith Inquisitor, level 11

Now here we go. Beginning area is basically cut & paste from the Korriban area of KOTOR, including plumbing the depths of the tombs. I wouldn’t be surprised if the layouts are the exact same. Story is a lot more interesting, good dialog choices, nice conflict options. The Inquisitor plays a lot like an old-school Shadow priest, what with the 10-yard channeled snare spell and such. It felt nice shooting Lightning, but I cannot help but wonder how fun it will be doing it ad infinitum. The last two levels before I got my tank companion were brutal though, like playing a mage without Frost Nova.

One thing I haven’t mentioned is that each class has a channeled ability to recharge health/mana (etc). Jedi Knight has Introspection or whatever, while the Inquisitor has Seethe. Seethe. You literally pace with your hands behind your back, back and forth, as darkness falls around you. Way better than pushing a stein with a bread roll stuff in the top through your face ala WoW.

Also, there was a section where I could use a knockback to knock mobs off the ledge and into the abyss. They died, and I got full XP.

Trooper, level 10

This was the class experience that immediately gripped me by the balls, and threatened to never let go. You barely have time for 2-3 dialog choices before your ship gets blown up, and you stumble out into a heavy fighting zone with blasters and explosions going off every which way. My two buttons at level 1 is a stream of blaster rifle fire (i.e. Strike in WoW) and a Concussive Grenade (i.e. lol level 1); both are instant-cast, and the latter knocks mobs every which way. I’m running around, helping people under fire, getting additional objectives in the field, and suddenly realize… I want this as a game. Not as an MMO, but as a game.

True, some of the Light/Dark side choices break the immersion (recovering stolen medicine for hurt soldiers = Dark, giving medicine to the thieves = Light), but there is a lot of drama potential here. Plot hooks are planted, primed, and fired. And as a Trooper, I feel a lot more freedom to make decisions the way I would want them to be made. Hey, the ends sometimes justify the means, know what I’m saying?

Also, I feel kinda bad for having the prior impression that the Trooper was going to be like those faceless Rebel mooks in the dumb helmets from the original trilogy. I sometimes wonder if Bioware spent a lot more developer resources making them extra badass to dispel that very notion. You’ve seen the cinematic, right? When a trooper tries to take out a Sith with a goddamn knife? That’s how badass playing a Trooper feels like.

Imperial Agent, level 5

Time was running out on the beta, so I didn’t get as far as I liked. Much like the Trooper experience though, the Imperial Agent felt like it was, is, and should be its own separate game. I basically randomized the character and name, but my lithe, biracial cyborg may almost be my favorite character. It is just too bad that I don’t think the Imperial Agent playstyle – cover mechanics are kinda lame when you get accidental aggro – is going to be my cup of tea. What little of the story I have seen, I like. A lot.

In any event, this is running long. Further musings will need to wait.