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Reminder: Big numbers are big

Minecraft has sold over 100 million copies. In 2016, the average rate of new sales was 53,000 per day. That’s… pretty big. Here is part of the infographic Mojang posted:

MinecraftSales

Holy mobile revolution, Batman!

The above infographic really surprised me though, for several reasons. As I pointed out in January of last year, the Minecraft stats we had circa June 2014 were the following:

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

But look at the infographic again. Actual PC sales of Minecraft is just a small fraction of total sales, which was the trend we saw already happening in 2014. If you average the PC sales together, you only get about 23% of total. Which, if you math it out, means PC/MAC sales have been ~9,577,735 in the last two years (106,859,714 * 0.23 – 15,000,000). Or roughly 13,120 sales per day on PC.

The reason I bring this up is due to a recent post by SynCaine. His thesis is:

The bigger point here though, as it relates to MMOs, is that this is a very important date point related to the “Everyone who wanted to play WoW already has it” talking point and how it relates to the failures of the game from WotLK and beyond. Minecraft has a much larger user base than WoW, yet it’s still attracting a horde of new players daily, so why do some people think WoW is a special snowflake and had/has tapped out the market?

In other words, “how can market saturation exist if Minecraft is still doing so well?”

Wilhelm deconstructs the argument pretty thoroughly already, but I wanted to spend a moment, again, to remind people about big numbers. Specifically, the extremely likely chance that WoW is selling more copies per day than Minecraft is on PC. Yes, even now, in the nadir of Warlords.

The two questions you need to ask yourself are 1) what is WoW’s current population, and 2) what is its churn rate (i.e. percent of players that cycle out per month). Historically, the churn rate of WoW was 5%. Is it higher now? Probably. So, to throw out two numbers, let’s assume that WoW is holding steady at 5.5 million subs at a 10% churn rate. That means WoW needs to sell 18,333 new subscriptions a day, just to keep pace.

WoW is losing subscribers these days, of course. Since the numbers are no longer being reported, we may never know how many. But let’s do some sanity checks. The last reported sub number was 5.5 million in September 2015. As already noted, maintaining that number would require 18,333 new subs a day. But WoW probably isn’t maintaining anything – it’s losing customers. Rather than be arbitrary, let’s assume it’s “only” getting something like, oh, 13,120/day.

18,333 – 13,120 = 5,213 * 30 * 9 = 1,407,510

Do you believe WoW is currently at ~4.1 million subs or less? If not, hey, it’s still selling more boxes daily than Minecraft on PC.

In the comments to his post, SynCaine pointed out that since WoW is in decline, we can’t actually say that 100% of the churn are new players coming in. Er… okay. That’s not how churn (or reality) works, but let’s roll with that. What is the population at then? The same 4 million-some? Zero new players and 1.4 million vets burning out in the last 9 months? That’s an average of 156,390 per month, which equals a churn rate between 2.8-3.8%. Meaning this dead period of Warlords retains players better than vanilla or TBC ever did.

Granted, the reality is probably somewhere inbetween there. Still, big numbers are big.

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More Hearthstone Revenue Speculation

Because two posts aren’t enough!

Actually, the real reason is because during the comment back-n-forth with Syncaine, Wilhelm mentioned something I had never realized before: Blizzard actually does post revenue numbers for just World of Warcraft. You can follow along at home by navigating to the Activision Blizzard Investor page and the Q4 2014 Excel document entitled 12-Quarter Financial Model. On the Rev Mix by Platform tab, you get the following (edited) table:

Numbers.

Numbers.

The asterisk indicates that “Online” revenue solely has to do with WoW related subscriptions and services. So for 2014 WoW raked in $1.035 billion. Interestingly enough, this point of reference allows us to flip back to the NR and OI by Segment tab, which breaks down total revenue for just Blizzard (again, chart edited):

More numbers.

More numbers.

Apparently you can get a much easier summation of the above information from this PDF, which I only realized after the fact.

So, for 2014 Blizzard made $685m in non-WoW revenue. For the curious, those non-WoW figures were $319m in 2013 and $538m in 2012. As far as I know, only the Diablo 3 expansion and Hearthstone were notable releases in 2014, although obviously there is X amount of revenue coming in from incidental sales of D3, Starcraft, and such.

I was unable to find exact figures of total Reaper of Souls sales other than 2.7 million copies in the first week. Assuming $40 apiece, that lowers Hearthstone’s possible share by another $108m at a minimum. If the opening paragraphs of D3’s Wikipedia page can be believed, the original game has sold 15 million copies. Combined with news that D3 + expac sold 20 million altogether as of August 2014, that pushes the Diablo portion to $200m, minimum.

Going back to what we know, the Hearthstone revenue formulas are thus:

  • [Hearthstone] = $850m – [$500m+ Destiny], or
  • [Hearthstone] = $685m – [$200m+ non-WoW]

Incidentally, most of the Destiny reporting says it achieved $500m in revenue on Day 1. That’s not actually true – there was $500m in shipped product, but only $325m in actually-sold games in the first five days of release. Or about 5 million units, physical and digital. There are two near-as-we-can-tell figures that incorporate all of 2014: VGChartz’s 9.3 million units and 13 million unique players as of Christmas. Depending on how charitable you wish to be, that range is either $558m to $780m (@$60/copy), or $604.5m to $845m (@$65 average/copy). Which means Hearthstone is anywhere from $292m to… er, $5m.

I think I heard Syncaine fall off his chair from here.

All told, I still feel it’s entirely possible that Hearthstone made at least $100m in 2014, if not $200m. That’s a quite a reduction from my earlier post vis-a-vis $350m for Hearthstone, of course. And I’m fine with that in light of this new information; if I’m factually incorrect, then I will acknowledge it and move on. My only real horse in this fight is the ridiculously specious argument that A) Hearthstone is a mobile port, and B) it’s not that successful. Not only does current reality defy A, in terms of B it’s entirely possible Hearthstone (eventually?) outstrips Magic: the Gathering in yearly revenue.

Either way, not bad for a card game that came out of nowhere.

Subscriptions Are Dead; Long Live Subscriptions

Tobold has a post up talking about the fate of the subscription model. Namely, that while TESO and Wildstar devs are heroically trying to swim against the F2P current, the hard numbers and future MMO releases paint a different, more bleak picture. As somewhat hilariously pointed out by commenter Mike Andrade in that post, this sort of subscription analysis appears to be a Tobold yearly August tradition, but nevermind.

Both Gevlon in the comments and SynCaine in a post come out of the gate with a rather blistering one-two retort: 1) maybe recent sub games are floundering because the games themselves are bad, and 2) where are all the F2P successes then?

Granted, SynCaine moved the goal-posts a bit by specifying “day-1 F2P,” when the facts of the matter are (likely) that subscription games that have made the F2P transition are only still online because of said transition. In other words, SWTOR and LOTRO and Aion and DDO and STO and TSW (etc) are perfectly valid examples of F2P success stories by virtue of those games still being online and profitable. That all of them would prefer the giant piles of initial subscriber cash isn’t really saying anything about the long-term sustainability of the model itself. Why would any of them start off F2P if it’s possible to not leave that money on the table?

But if we’re looking ahead, I suppose ArchAge and SOE’s flagship EverQuest Next being F2P might be potential candidates day-1 F2P success (however that ends up being defined).

The subscription counter-example a lot of people have been using is FF14, which frankly shocked me in terms of subscriber numbers. Apparently there are 2 million of them? If legitimate, that would rocket it past all non-WoW MMOs to be one of the most successful subscription games of all time. Of course, it sells for $15 on Steam every three weeks, there’s a sizable console market for the game (something not many MMOs can achieve), and it technically got a do-over that allowed it to “launch” with years of content instead of the normal zero. But still! That’s impressive.

Okay, actually FF14 has two million “registered accounts,” which is sort of like subscribers in the same way F2P games are “free to play.” Still, subscriptions! 500,000 people log on at least once per day! For now, anyway.

Ultimately, I think a lot of the subscription game musing is sort of missing the point. While there are subtle pressures involved when you look at a subscription game – worrying about getting your money’s worth even if $15/month is pocket change normally – I agree with people like SynCaine that say if a game is worth it, you’ll pay the money… to a point. Because when you are talking about MMOs, the quality of the content itself is almost a tertiary concern to retention. Don’t believe me? Then tell me how a game like WoW can get away with having zero new content from September 2013 to today and “only” lose around ~10.5% of its population. It’s the people, stupid. Yeah, there’s an underlying game space that needs to be entertaining enough to collect everyone in one spot and having fun during downtime, but how long is anyone really subscribing to a single-player game? You can have the most entertaining base game in the world, but if nobody is making those sticky social connections – perhaps because they already have social networks elsewhere – then they are just going to leave in three months anyway.

Frankly, the biggest issue with subscriptions are companies whom vastly overestimate their own popularity, and otherwise set themselves up for failure. If you budget your MMO such that you need 500,000 people paying $15/month just to survive, you’re going to have a bad time. The lower that floor is, the more space you will have to grow the audience later. Or, hell, just maintain the people you have currently.

So while I do not believe the subscription model itself is going anywhere, I do think that it’s only going to be particularly sustainable to those games which have tightly-wounded social pockets. Creating said pockets out of thin air is incredibly tough, but that’s not going to stop games like TESO and Wildstar from at least capitalizing on 6-12 months of bonus revenue they would not have otherwise had if they went with B2P and/or F2P.

Hearthstone’s Future

SynCaine brought up an interesting point about the future of Hearthstone:

“situation in Hearthstone only ever improves”

Until the the first expansion is released, and what do you think is going to be the revenue driver for the game?

At least with MtG:O, it was understood you were stepping into a P2W arena, where you could pay X to compete with Y. What level you wanted to compete at was up to you and your wallet.

Here, I feel as though Blizzard is trying to hide the P2W aspect (especially in beta), but ultimately that’s what the model demands. Without new cards you don’t keep people interested, and for those new cards to be interesting, they have to be worthwhile (aka; stronger/better).

I think the heavy class-based gameplay is also a balance nightmare as we are already seeing, and I expect it to get worse as the better players create more gimmick decks. Woe is the free player if the FOTM gimmick requires an epic or ten.

While the game isn’t even in Open Beta at this point, I think it is reasonable to start thinking about where Hearthstone goes from here. At the moment, I am sort of worried about the “depth” of the game, although it’s possible that it’s current shallowness accessibility is a feature, not a bug. Then again, I’m not entirely sure.

There are several things working against Hearthstone’s future. The biggest is it’s class system. In a card game like Magic: the Gathering, you can have a robust metagame arising from even the “generic” Core Set (which come out once a year and forms a “base” upon which the near-quarterly expansion sets build upon) because you can conceivably play any card you want; the five colors of Magic have their own class-like themes and mechanics, but you can mix and match to your heart’s desire. Thus, a Black/White deck can play totally different from an all-Black or all-White deck. With Hearthstone, a Paladin’s cards are exclusive to Paladins. You can’t choose to play, say, Avenging Wrath in your Mage deck, for example. Or Divine Favor in your Shaman deck.

A related long-term problem is expandability. I am not talking about running out of mechanics or creatures to reference from WoW or Warcraft lore (although that’s sort of a concern, honestly), I am talking about how many new cards can actually be coherently added. In short, Blizzard is going to have to either create a ton of new cards each expansion, or barely any. For example, an expansion that adds just one common, rare, and epic card to each class will require 30 new cards (9 classes + neutral). While that may or may not sound like a lot of cards, unless these new cards are above the curve or enable entirely new strategies, it’s possible that an expansion could be a total dud for you and the class you enjoy playing despite increasing the total card pool by 10% or more.

Third, as I have mentioned before, the class balance is on a razor’s edge even in a perfect scenario. It is pretty much a given that we will see a Death Knight and Monk class added in an expansion, and they will need to have at least 15 additional, class-exclusive cards and unique Hero Powers. While that can certainly shake up the overall balance structure, it’s not as though your specific metagame will likely change all that much. Because, again, your Mage deck is limited to Mage cards plus Neutral cards; there is no DK “splash” to provide additional depth.

Fourth, it is worth considering how many different mechanics Blizzard is A) willing to implement in this game, and B) can implement in this game. One of the most basic creature abilities in Magic is Flying: a creature with Flying cannot be blocked except by other creatures with Flying, although it can choose to block non-Flying creatures. In the context of Hearthstone, this ability doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, as you have complete control (barring Taunt) to choose whether your creatures attack your opponent or a specific creature. Now, Blizzard could certainly shoehorn it in there – perhaps making the flying creature untargetable by other creatures – but that’s when the devs start to go against their (presumed) mandate towards simplicity.

And that’s just with Flying.

Lastly, SynCaine’s cynicism regarding Blizzard making overpowered cards to sell future expansions is not without merit, even if I would argue that it’s largely unavoidable and not inherently malicious. Power creep happens. Even when “the rules” about costs are nailed down, some options are more powerful/relevant than others. In Magic, a First Strike 2/2 is better than a Trample 2/2 even if they both cost the same amount of mana. A Flying 2/2 is arguably better than either. I have pointed this out before:

Balance!

Balance!

Being a Beast is not as powerful as the other two cards, unless you are playing a Hunter Beast deck. But the more damning implication, IMO, is how the above cards sort of imply that a 1/4 for 2 would be balanced. Or a 2/4 for 2 mana, even. We already have 3/2s with an ability, 2/3s with an ability, 1/3s with a huge ability for 1 mana (Priests, seriously), so a 2/4 for 2 isn’t outlandish rules-wise. And yet it would be crazy OP, invalidating a huge swath of two-drops. The context of the environment is as important and possibly more so than the strict card power rules.

All that being the case, I don’t actually agree with SynCaine that the new player is screwed, as my prior declaration remains accurate: your situation in Hearthstone only ever improves. Six expansions later, assuming no structural changes, you will still be able to Disenchant the cards you don’t want to directly create the cards you do. That’s unbelievably huge in the CCG world. Even if you take the stance that your likelihood of opening one of the “ten or so required Epics” is necessarily diminished (assuming new cards are stuffed into the same virtual booster pack), your ability to guarantee a card is not – you will always get 40 Dust per pack, minimum. Ten packs is an Epic of your choice. You’ll get enough gold in two days of daily quests to buy a pack straight-up, or three if you want to go the Arena route. So, unless expansions are coming out every 1-2 months, you’ll have plenty of time to get whatever cards you need to be/stay competitive without spending a dime.

Spending dimes gets you there faster, of course. But in this context, I’m okay with it.

OTOH Experiment

Everyone knows the importance of first impressions, and how they can color every experience thereafter. The situation is a bit more dire when it comes to blogging (or at least it feels that way), because once we nail something down with words, it not only helps cement the first impressions in our own minds, but it also becomes baggage that gets checked any time we say something contrary in the future. You would not see Wolfshead or Syncaine posting about how much they enjoy Mists of Pandaria, for example, even if they were genuinely impressed; so much of their identity and “e-cred” is wrapped up in historical posts about hating WoW that everyone would assume they are trolling at best, or hypocritical at worse.

I was thinking about all that this weekend, as I mused over the sort of feedback and counter-arguments I have been getting about my Guild Wars 2 posts. Do they have a point? Am I letting my first impressions and foreknowledge about the “endgame” color my moment-to-moment enjoyment? Am I not talking about the fun/interesting things because I subconsciously fear “contradicting” myself?

To answer these questions, I decided to try an experiment I am calling: On The Other Hand. The idea is to carve out a space between playing Devil’s Advocate and cleaning the slate as much as possible for a second impression. The experiment does not involve me being relentlessly positive or pretending to like things I do not – it merely gives me mental room to acknowledge that I may have been unfair in the past.

I’m wrapping this all up in a fancy “experiment” instead of just coming out and admitting possible wrongs, because… well, it is easier. Hey, I never pretended to be a humble guy.

In any case, the first night of the experiment actually happened on Saturday when I strolled into a zone I had never been to before; took some screenshots, jotted down some notes. Since I spent all day Sunday playing FTL (ominous foreshadowing?) I am going to try and run the experiment for another day or two. The end result may be in one big post, or several smaller ones. I especially want to try to get back into a third dungeon.

So look forward to that, or dread it, as is your predilection.

Established Fact

In one of Syncaine’s latest posts, a commenter made the claim:

WoW is bleeding accounts because people are finally realizing that being handed everything with minimal effort and no risk is, in actuality, not that much fucking fun over the long run.

After I presented the counter-argument that it was established fact that increased difficulty was principally the cause of WoW subscriber drop-off, Rammstein “countered” with this:

Anything that Chilton says to the New York Times is “established fact”? LOL. You never considered any of the following?

1. He could be lying.

2. He could be wrong, which looks more likely when you consider he is part of the design team responsible for the drop.

3. He could be both lying and wrong, the most probable scenario.

4. He could be right. In this horribly unlikely case, what he said is STILL NOT ESTABLISHED FACT, as that would require something establishing it as a fact besides someone just saying it to someone else.

Syncaine agreed with Rammstein and made another post highlighting it. So… let us give these arguments the gravity their authors did not.

1. He could be lying.

Sure, Tom Chilton could be lying to the New York Times. But… to what end? His specific line is:

“What we’re trying to do now is figure out what our current audience wants,” Tom Chilton, World of Warcraft’s game director, told me by phone last week. “It became clear that it wasn’t realistic to try to get the audience back to being more hard core, as it had been in the past.”

Is that supposed to be less embarrassing? An admission from the game’s director that they don’t know what their present audience wants, in an article about the release of Star Wars: The Old Republic? What could they be hiding that is worse? Assuming Syncaine and company are correct vis-a-vis lack of difficulty being the cause, it would be far, far easier to admit that WoW had deviated too far from what “made WoW great” and that Cataclysm was the first step in the right direction.

Except… Cataclysm clearly wasn’t a step in the right direction because it was released with a higher difficulty and 2 million people left anyway. So how convoluted does your difficulty argument have to be to still remain valid? That people hated the ease of Wrath, burned themselves out, got served a difficult expansion, and then quit 2-3 months later after getting exactly what they wanted/needed? The nerfs did not occur until after the loss in subscriptions, after the 50+ minute LFD queues. Or is the argument that the hardcore center hollowed out in Wrath? In which case… who were the 2 million who unsubbed in Cataclysm?

Even if we assume that Chilton was lying to the NYT for whatever reason, for that argument to hold you must further assume that it was not just Chilton, but the entire damn company. Here was Mike Morhaime in the November Earning call:

That said, we know there are improvements that we can make in gaming content. The level-up content in Cataclysm is some of our best works. But it was consumed quickly compared to our past expansions set, Wrath of the Lich King. Once players reached max level, the end-game content in Cataclysm is more difficult. Balancing this content for our diverse player base can be very challenging.

Our development team is constantly analyzing the game, and we’re continuing to explore ways that we can adjust the game to better satisfy both hard-core and casual players. To that end, our next free major content update for World of Warcraft is already in testing and will be available for players in the coming weeks.

I could post more. In fact, I did post more… back in March of 2011 as I put the backpedaling on a timeline starting from January 7th’s “We don’t think it was a mistake to start with the difficulty we did” to February 3rd’s “On the other hand, maybe things have come too far in the other direction.” The whole gang is there: Zarhym, Daxxarri, Bashiok, Ghostcrawler. Were they just repeating Chilton’s lie for the past 12 months?

Not only were they lying with words, they also had to be lying with deeds. Consider the LFD Luck of the Draw buff that rolled out not even two weeks after Ghostcrawler told everyone to L2P. Consider the absolute bevvy of heroic nerfs, the T11 nerfs, the ZA/ZG nerfs, the 4.2 nerfs before the end of the patch (!), and finally the implementation of LFR. And let us not forget part of the Mists of Pandaria announcement:

In Cataclysm, Heroic dungeons were intentionally designed as gear and difficulty checks on the progression to raiding. In Mists of Pandaria, the Raid Finder will be the appropriate transition from running dungeons to Normal raids. Heroic dungeons will largely be tuned to be about as difficult as they were in Wrath of the Lich King, allowing players to fairly quickly down bosses in PUGs and hit their Valor Point caps. Valor Points will follow a new philosophy with 4.3, as a parallel way to gear up alongside the Raid Finder, but not as a fill-in for boss drops.

Which leads us to:

2. He could be wrong.

I am actually much more sympathetic to this argument, simply because we do know not just by experience, but by admission that designers (or at least the people that manage them) frequently have no goddamn idea what they are doing. Even in Blizzard’s specific case, Chilton is admitting they are still trying to figure out the current audience wants, which becomes more and more bizarre the longer you think about it.

That said, while I am sympathetic to this argument, it is also extremely weak. Blizzard is privy to 100% of the statistics that we have to crudely extrapolate from either Armory information, or from websites that have not been updated since October. And even the statistics we have access to can be incredibly misleading. I have always said that arguments based on total subs is asinine, because who knows what the churn rate is, what the concurrent users numbers are doing, and so on. Only Blizzard does, and we only know what they have said:

Are you basing this conclusion [heroics too hard] off of forum posts or in game data?  I hope it’s the latter so you get a truly accurate picture.

That’s an analysis pulled from hard data. We always try to base improvements an accurate overall picture. (source)

The Luck of the Draw buff, however, is being made in response to the feedback we’re seeing on the forums, as well as the statistics we’ve been reviewing which reflect all types of dungeon party trends. We feel it’s a good way of closing the disparity between the success of pick up groups and the success of preformed groups, without trivializing the content for some players to appease others. (source)

By looking at actual stats, actual progression, time spent playing, where, and to what extent, we can see that most people are looking for more accessible raid content, so yes, we absolutely are able to tell without a doubt that the plan we’re enacting is actually what players playing the game want and need, and are not just listening to people on the forums. (source)

So the “He could be wrong” counter-argument essentially comes down to “Blizzard is wrong about why they experienced a loss in subscribers because I said so without any objective evidence other than total sub numbers.”

Could Blizzard actually be wrong? Sure. Maybe they actually lost 2 million subs because of the alignment of Praxis-12 Prime with the center of the Andromeda galaxy. But given the incredibly consistent (since February 2011), highly publicized direction shift when it comes to difficulty, it is beyond all reasonable doubt that Blizzard as a whole believes the Cataclysm drop in subscribers was due to Cataclysm being too hard. With the release of LFR and all information revealed about Mists of Pandaria thus far, it is similarly clear that Blizzard is literally betting the $1 billion farm on an easier, more accessible WoW experience.

Consider this fact established.

Designer Responsibility

How responsible are game designers in the balancing of their (single-player) game?

Syncaine swerves to the right:

One theme I’m seeing is the debate about what is OP [in Skyrim], and how easy it is to min/max the game. I find this… odd. As Nil’s himself pointed out, you can turn godmode on if you want, and be as ‘maxed out’ as you can possibly get. Hearing that people are ‘exploiting’ the game by running into a wall for hours while hidden to max out stealth makes no sense to me. Why waste all that time, just go into the character file and put stealth to 100. […]

“Am I to blame?”

Yes.

Luckily the solution is easy; remove one or more of the enchanted pieces, or up the difficulty, or RP a reason why you no longer require mana to cast spells.

I’d rather you do that then Bethesda spend time hardcoding a solution over adding yet-another-quest, or whatever other content they could do in that time. Or have the hardcoded solution prevent me from play “how I want”.

If this was an MMO, 100% valid point. If it was a multiplayer game like Dungeon Defenders, still 100% valid. An sRPG that is far more about the journey than the end-goal? Naw, non-issue IMO.

Nils has a more center-oriented approach:

I agree that it is partly in the player’s responsibility to not optimize the fun out of his game. An example would be sneaking against a wall until you have maxed out stealth in Skyrim.

On the other hand, I just uploaded a video to youtube that shows how I enchanted four items and now can cast destruction and restoration spells witout any mana cost. This is a game changer, as the mana constraint was important in the game – until then. Many of my perks in the talent trees are suddenly useless. The game becomes worse. Playing it is less fun if I can just spam a single spell without looking at mana.
I optimized the fun out of Skyrim. Am I to blame?

The problem is that I ended up enchanting my equipment this way not by sneaking against a wall. I simply skilled enchanting and then used reasonable enchantments on my equipment.

My point is this: A game cannot use the cartot, that character power progression (CPP) is, to increase the player’s engagement with the game, and at the same time allow him to optimize the fun out by hunting the carrot in a reasonable way.

My own left-leaning approach is the same as I outlined in the Culpability of Questionable Design, the very first post I made under the In An Age banner. Essentially, it is (almost) always the designer’s fault.

Don’t Hate the Player, Hate the Game

As I commented on Syncaine’s post, I find it bizarrely apologetic to state that it is a player’s responsibility to not ruin the game for themselves. The specific situation in Skyrim Nils had brought up was the ability to eliminate all mana/stamina costs of spells and abilities via Enchanting. Nils had gotten his Enchanting skill up “legitimately,” as opposed to, say, getting 100 Sneak by auto-sneaking into a corner for a several hours. For the record, I see zero difference between those two activities – both are simply examples of incredibly poor design ridiculous failures of imagination.

In Oblivion there existed a Magic College where you could invent your own spells and magic items, within certain constraints. Making a Fireball spell that dealt 100 damage was expensive, whereas a 50 damage Fireball cost less. Similarly, a buff/debuff that lasted an hour was more expensive than one that lasted for only 1 second. After about an hour of playing with the various sliders, I left the College with a ranged spell that decreased the HP of the creature it touched by 100 for 1 second. The practical effect was that it instantly killed everything in the game, at least until I gained many more levels – even then, if I fired it quickly, the second hit would kill anything with less than 200 HP since it stacked with itself. I called this spell Finger of Death, and later added it to a sword along with the Soul-draining property so that as the sword instantly killed who it touched, it refueled itself.

I did not set out to break Oblivion, nor did Nils set out to break Skyrim; the both of us were simply using the tools the designers gave us and taking them to their logical conclusions. It is the responsibility of the designers to ensure that incredibly obvious things (at least in retrospect) like “-25% mana usage” does not stack with itself, that temporary decreases in HP scale the same as damage abilities when their effects are indistinguishable, and so on, are balanced. Arguing to the contrary is to admit that WoW leveling is not too quick since the player can manually shut off XP, that facerolling mobs and instances is a player failure as said player could play with just one hand, play with a gamepad, play with Resurrection Sickness, or any number of entirely arbitrary self-imposed restrictions. It is to abdicate, wholly and completely, any responsibility of the designers to present a balanced, well-paced experience.

Syncaine is right about these games being about the journey, not necessarily getting to the end as quickly as possible. And yet I derive deep satisfaction in the execution of strategies, figuring out how rules/objects work, and finding more efficient ways of doing tasks; those things constitute the journey to me. Turning on god-mode in the console may have the same end result, but it skips all the fun, thinking bits inbetween, just like skipping to the last chapter of a book. In other words: optimization is fun.

And so I believe it is – and has to be – the designer’s responsibility to ensure that if a game can be optimized, that it still continues to be fun and challenging when it inevitably is. Anything less is laziness, incompetence, or both.

Class Warfare

Things are getting ugly out there in the MMO blogging realm. Very ugly. I am referring to Syncaine’s “Twit” series of posts. And while the implicit embrace of Gevlon’s M&S generalizations is one thing, this new pernicious brand of thinking is being focused on the one group of people that has nothing at all to do with the “twitification” of the hobby. In so demonizing them, one simultaneously give a free pass to the people actually responsible and reinforce all the stereotypes gamers have all endured for decades.

Syncaine actually started out being reasonable. He identified the problem with the (baited) Twit generation in my MMO post:

But what about those of us with more than a 5 minute attention span? What about those who found the older level of challenge just right? We spend money too, and tend to spend it for longer periods of time when given the chance. Are there countless millions of us like there are Farmville players? No. But we are out there, in the hundreds of thousands at least.

Specifically, there are less of you, ergo you are a vanishingly tiny niche not worth catering to, at least with AAA titles. That is capitalism working as intended. Syncaine does have a point insofar as the MMO mold can only be morphed so far while still retaining the things that make it an MMO, at least by any given definition of MMO. Where things go completely off the rails is when he stages a Tea Party-esque rally of entitled bourgeois to attack the players, instead of the game.

And sadly the twit-generation is not just young kids, but ADD (clinical or not) riddled ‘adults’ that have become so entitles, so expectant, that anything beyond instant gratification is not good enough. (source)

McDonalds makes its money not from starving people without options, but from twits who are too lazy or plan life too poorly to have time for a real meal. (source)

You want to know the difference between you and the entitled, unwashed masses you decry as killing your genre? Not a single goddamn thing. Whine, whine, whine. “I want challenge! I want games built just for meeeeeeee.” You and everyone else.

I have said for ages that there is nothing at all selfish about wanting content designed for your skill level. At the end of the day, that is what everyone wants. And it’s not just about skill level because that implies everyone looks for challenge. They don’t. There are people in WoW who log on, fish for an hour, and log out. That sort of thing is relaxing to them. Judging them based on that is indistinguishable from judging them based on what kind of music they listen to, how much money they make, or you know, the fact that they play videogames to begin with.

I get it. I understand you had this game/genre that seemed to be based entirely around your needs and desires, and now it seems to be slipping away. That’s life. More importantly, that’s business. Blizzard et tal are the ones who decided that they would rather chase casual dollars instead of your small wad of sweaty money. Stop blaming the players who have nothing to do with game design decisions, and blame those that do. Or, you know, don’t blame anyone because game companies exist to make money. And chances are good that the economics team of the billion-dollar game companies like Blizzard have already graphed out exactly how much your high regard is worth, and found it wanting.

Harder games are not some higher, purer form of magic. They are simply different tastes. And if none are being made, or the ones that exist are being “dumbed down,” you may want to start up your utopian commune because the Invisible Hand is flipping you off. That, or you could demonstrate some of that delayed gratification skills you accuse others of lacking and simply wait for some game company to come along and cater to your more refined palette.

OT: Subscription and Correlation

Did you know that ice cream makes it more likely you will drown? It’s true. When ice cream sales increase, so do the number of drowning deaths. Clearly linked! Speaking of spurious correlations…

I fully expect Rift to now follow in the footsteps of WoW, in that it will decline. Vanilla and BC days had challenging content, and it’s not a surprise that sub numbers grew. WotLK made things ‘accessible’, and surprise surprise, the response was pretty meh (sub numbers dropped in the US/EU, but were offset globally by WoW launching in new regions, hence the overall stagnation). Cata tried to play both sides of the fence, but a combo of too little too late, a gimmick of progression (hard mode rehashes rather than straight-up new content), and a one-track, insult difficulty 1-85 game did it in. With no new regions to offset things, subs are dropping.

(SynCaine in the post “Accessibility killed Rift“)

World of Warcraft’s growth rate went from a perfectly stable 2 million subscribers per year during 2006 to 2009, to zero during WotLK. This was exactly the time when Blizzard changed the character progression mechanic.

(Nils in the post “Smoke and Mirrors“)

“If developers design a game which requires too much effort from the average player for too little gain, the average players will start leaving the game. “

This is the part I strongly disagree with, and WoW’s sub history does as well. Vanilla/BC, which had a MUCH harder end-game that fewer players saw to completion, saw massive growth. WotLK/Cata, with raids being cleared by all who stepped inside, have brought decline.

(SynCaine in a comment on Tobold’s post “Syncaine on Accessibility“)

The reason I bring these examples up is because this type of thinking (or lack thereof) is what I consider one of the most pernicious, asinine fallacies in any discussion of World of Warcraft. It is intellectual laziness at best, intellectual dishonesty at worse. Before I begin in earnest however, here is a slightly augmented graph from MMOData that most people refer to when they talk about WoW subs:

1) Correlation does not mean causation.

Standard preface to any claim that X means Y. Ice cream and drowning are only “linked” because there is a third factor involved.

2) Even if correlation did mean causation, why this particular correlation?

This specific point is the reason the argument is intellectually lazy. When you look at the graph, it is true what Nils and SynCaine said about there being a relatively rapid period of growth during vanilla and TBC that was not apparent after the release of Wrath. However, tying that solely (or even partially) to accessibility/character progression/difficulty/etc is a completely unsupported leap of logic.

There is zero evidence given by either author as to why it was “existence of more challenging content” and not, I dunno, the introduction of the PvP Honor System and BGs in the summer of 2005, which coincides with a 500k sub spike in WoW-West on graph. Or the release of ZG in September of that year, also suspiciously near another 500k sub bump. Or if I looked at WoW’s overall numbers like Nils does with his “2 million per year growth” argument, perhaps I could argue Patch 1.12 with it’s wildly successful:

The stage is set for intense, objective-based land battles as Horde and Alliance vie for control over important strategic positions and resources around Azeroth. Head out for Silithus and Eastern Plaguelands to engage the enemy on the field!

…was responsible for the corresponding bump of 1 million (!) subscribers. Clearly, clearly, more things like Silithus and the old Eastern Plagueland towers is just what WoW needs.

3) What does endgame accessibility/difficulty have to do with anything?

This is another intellectually lazy part of the argument that the authors never bother to address. What percentage of the playerbase ever actually makes it to the endgame, and is this percentage big enough to even impact subscription growth? That is an open question.

The best metric that I can come up with is to look at the number of guilds who killed Beasts of Northrend in 10m ToC after two years of it being out (86,187 guilds), multiply that by something charitable like 30 players, and then divide by the approximate population in the graph above while only taking into account the regions in which WoWProgress collects data (~6.5 million). The result is 39.77% of players killing the easiest boss in the easiest tier of which we have data (something like Noth the Lootbringer from Naxx 2.0 would have been better, but alas…). That actually sounds like a lot of people, and 19.88% assuming only 15 raiders per guild is not too shabby either when referring to raid content.

That said, there is no evidence whatsoever from those two that difficulty-related gyrations amongst the top 1/3rd of players doing raiding content has a meaningful impact in comparison to whatever the remaining 2/3rd non-raiders are doing. Between 2005 and 2009 the subscriber base was growing at ~25% per year. Is it even remotely likely that the top 40% had anything to do with a meaningful drop in growth rate?

4) Growth, or lack thereof, does not really mean anything other than what it is.

What I mean by this is that you cannot simply look at growth as anything other than what it is: growth. It does not mean anything else without further information. For all the talk about growth rate percentages and “the design decisions that caused them,” look at the pink line for a moment. That represents subscriptions in NA alone. Unfortunately MMOData stopped tracking that information individually (or perhaps Blizzard stopped giving it out), but the whole of TBC resulted in ~650k more subscriptions in NA over a two-year period.

Is 325k sub growth per year more than the apparent zero sub growth in the year of Wrath? Sure… but we have no real way of knowing why that growth was occurring. Was player churn less of a factor in vanilla and TBC? Was the growth simply due to the release of WoW in additional regions? Does market saturation have any impact? Do we simply ignore, I dunno, one of the worst global recessions in world history?

Oh, wait a minute… early 2009 was when the markets were at their worst? And yet WoW subs were relatively stable in most regions during that entire year? Clearly Wrath’s accessibility and stress-free raiding were the only things stopping WoW’s overall decline in a tough market, as evidenced by Cata’s increased difficulty leading to subscription loss once markets improved. QED, amirite?

The bottom line here is that you cannot use WoW subscription numbers as evidence of a claim without first proving said numbers have anything to do with said claim. Did World of Warcraft gain six million subscriptions worldwide in its first year? Yes. Was that because of the strength of its class balance? Its risk versus reward structure? Its accessibility? No one can really say; all of it would be conjecture.

Personally, I believe the initial rush was due to the strength of the IP – I know I certainly gave WoW a shot because of how much I enjoyed Warcraft 3 – and also due to the strength of the Blizzard brand. The designers also got a lot of things down perfectly that I feel other MMO designers stumble across to this day, such as letting characters jump, making solo-play possible, having quests with interesting plots, getting the reward faucet just right while questing, and so on. The tone and tenor of game balance has certainly shifted quite a bit from when I began in TBC, but where I disagree with Nils and SynCaine is that I feel that Wrath was actually a step in a better direction in most (not all) ways. Unfortunately, until the duo, and others who believe as they do, let go of the absurd notion that “the numbers” support their conclusions, it is impossible to have any rational discussion about it.

There is a separate argument as to linear raid progression vs episodic progression, but that is an OT for another time.