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The ACTUAL Secret World Review Score

Tobold picked up the story about how Funcom stocks tanked after The Secret World failed to hit arbitrary Metacritic scores. While the post is centered on the legitimacy of review scores to begin with and/or the aggregation thereof, the more salient point was acknowledge but left unexamined.

Let us not bury the actual lede here (emphasis added):

Case in point: The Secret World. It got a “low” metacritic score of 72, causing Funcom’s shares to tank, and the company to announce layoffs. But the metacritic score was just an average of some people absolutely loving the game, and others not being impressed with the unusual setting, progression system, or pure technical performance. The relevant number for a subscription MMORPG is obviously the number of subscribers and the time it manages to hold onto them, not the review score.

So… what are The Secret World subscription numbers? My guess: not good.

Companies are always pretty eager to belt off “250k/500k/1 million subs!” press releases, and as of the time of writing, Funcom has… well, not said much of anything. The launch day press release awkwardly mentions:

“[…] as of now several of the game’s dimensions – which can hold tens of thousands of gamers playing at the same time – have started filling up due to the ever-increasing number of players coming into the game.”

I cannot help but note that “several tens of thousands” is not, say, 100,000. I am not even sure if I can fault Funcom for their hesitant confusion here, as it mentions that over 1.5 million people signed up for the TSW beta. I am no MMO economist, but I imagine a less-than 7% sale rate from people willing to sign up for a beta for your game is a mite unusual.

Then again, isn’t that near the approximate rate of people who buy stuff in F2P games?

But let us dig deeper. According to VGChartz.com, TSW has sold… 0.05m copies. Um, wow. I only recently started using VGChartz though, so maybe they are not all that reliable. How often is it actually updated, anyway?

Oh. That often, eh?

I dunno, those look legitimate to me. “Nearly 50,000 players worldwide!” is not exactly the sort of MMO (or any game, for that matter) press release that would garner positive attention.

[Edit] As pointed out in the comments, VGChartz almost assuredly only counts physical box sales. The page for Diablo 3, for instance, indicates only 2.6 million sales whereas Blizzard has said 10 million. While good to know for future reference, it is not entirely germane to the point at hand, e.g. Funcom hasn’t belted off a 250k or even 100k subscriber press release. [/Edit]

But at this point, I am almost more interested in what Funcom themselves expected. You can read the press release everyone is quoting for the wrong reasons (e.g. “Metacritic is the devil”) here. Or, you know, let me do all the fun stuff for you (emphasis added):

Funcom has on several occasions presented two financial scenarios for the first 12 months following launch of the game; please refer to page 17 in the 1Q 2012 presentation *). Funcom does not consider it likely that either of them will be met.

To improve sales going forward, Funcom is currently enhancing distribution by launching the game on the Steam platform as well as focusing on key areas for improvement of the game and on-going activities on content updates, sales initiatives and communication. The effect of all these initiatives together with other factors impacting sales are difficult to predict, but based on the available early data, one scenario is that sales for the first 12 months following launch will be less than half of what was presented in the “Conan-like” scenario. It should be noted that the sales amount in the “Conan-like” scenario is significantly higher than for the game “Age of Conan”, due to the assumption of better retention implemented in the scenario. Also it should be noted that the company has significantly lower operational cost for The Secret World than what was the case for Age of Conan. As less initial sales than expected is considered an indicator of impairment, the company is currently evaluating the need for recognizing an impairment loss for the game in the profit and loss statement.

Oh how very meta of them! In order to solve this riddle, I have to navigate to a 3rd party website, download a PDF, and then open their 1Q 2012 presentation to page 17.

And the answer is…

01000010 01100101 01110100 01110111 01100101 01100101 01101110 00100000 00110010 00111000 00110000 01101011 00100000 01100001 01101110 01100100 00100000 00110100 00111001 00110000 01101011

*cough* Sorry.

I’m assuming posting this screenshot is not illegal.

In other words, Funcom anticipated The Secret World getting between 280k and 490k subscribers. That means the “one scenario” mentioned in the press release refers to 140k subscribers… after 12 months. Technically they are referring to sales, but at this point moving even 525,000 boxes seems a tad aggressive; it is “only” a ten-fold increase in sales since launch.

None of this is to suggest that The Secret World is a bad game – lord knows my blogroll is filled with positive posts from across the spectrum. Personally, I never had much interest in the game primarily because the most lauded feature, Investigative quests, represents what I consider to be bad game design elsewhere: the necessity to look up outside information. Morse Code headlights? Fuck that, I’m an American. If your quest items don’t have a giant, deep-fried corndog floating over them, I’ll Alt-Tab my way into a whole different game entirely. Adventure games like Myst have their place (uninstalled in my Steam library), but I am typically more interested in performance-based games than puzzle ones. The former tend to last longer and feature more granularity in its progression.

But, hey, 50,000 people can’t be wrong.

P.S. One of the more surprising things I stumbled across in the Q1 Report was the fact that Age of Conan is apparently still profitable and will continue to be into the foreseeable future. At least, that is what I assume “cash flow positive” translates into. The bad news is that Funcom themselves appear to be hemorrhaging money, even before taking into account TSW lead-up to release.

The Virtual Line

Tobold has an interesting post up today on what he considers the defining characteristic of games: “a game is a risk-free environment in which you can try out various actions for fun or for learning without fear of the consequences, because the consequences aren’t real.”

The second paragraph is this:

As you can see there is a growing trend of “games” turning into “ungames”. There are many reasons for that, one of which is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Once you climb up that pyramid high enough, you are leaving the real world needs behind. If somebody’s needs are for status and achievement, he can fulfill that need in a virtual environment, and these virtual environments are usually designed to offer a lot of that status and virtual achievements for less effort than it would take to achieve something in the real world. There are now a sufficient number of people who are sufficiently well-off that they can spend real money on virtual status symbols or game achievements. That is bound to be used by those who are still lower on the pyramid and are just trying to make a buck. The danger is that people become confused about where the border between real and virtual is, which leads to stories like the Chinese guy who murdered a friend who borrowed and then sold his virtual sword.

Hagu knocks it out of the park with the very first comment:

I think “”played” to earn real money” is a bit restrictive.

In real life, if I had a $5 bill, a glass I paid $20 for but with no resale value, and a manuscript I spent 1000 hours creating, then I would be increasingly unhappy with the item being destroyed.

I would regret far more the lost of an item I spent hundreds of hours acquiring than a D3 sword I can sell for $5

The question I want to ask, though, is this: where is the border between real and virtual?

I am not asking that to be cute or contrary. I am literally asking what difference does it make? When have the consequences of a game not been real? Is the emotion you feel by reading fiction different to you than the emotion from an encounter in the real world? Is the frustration you feel at work different to you than the frustration you feel playing a videogame? Anger? Sadness? Disappointment? Embarrassment? Social pressure? Joy? Victory?

One cannot derive nourishment from a virtual apple. A virtual fire will not stave off hypothermia. Beyond that though? How exactly “real” is, say, Security under Maslow’s hierarchy? As any parent, victim of a crime, or survivalist can tell you, security is, at most, a state of mind. A paranoid schizophrenic won’t feel safe in a padded cell; conversely, there are people who voluntarily live in Detroit and St. Louis, the two US cities with the highest violent crime rates as of 2010. If you can feel safe without actually being safe, I think that begins to call into question “consequence-less gaming.”

When I play videogames, I do not think of the stresses of the day, the drama, the frustration with my job, or really anything from the real world. About the only difference between my gaming state and actually having no stresses, drama, or a frustrating job is that, perhaps, the feeling would persist beyond the end of the gaming session. Then again, biologically, we are designed to take things for granted; happiness has diminishing returns. Nevermind that (arguably) the persistence and permanence of anything is just wishful thinking on our parts.

Obviously, the subjective solipsism rabbit hole can get pretty deep.

I am not advocating that virtual relationships are as equally valuable as real ones, all other things being equal. If someone has the choice between a friend IRL and a game friend, I hope you would choose the one whose couch you could actually crash on. I just think it should be recognized that gaming is not really all that far removed from real life as Tobold (or Syncaine for that matter) might suggest. And that the things you experience in your head are as real to you as anything else; phantom limb pain is still pain.

The Chinese guy who murdered his friend over a game item gets our attention because the item wasn’t as “real” as, say, a family heirloom with no monetary value but priceless sentimental value. I’m suggesting that perhaps that is a distinction without all that much difference. Is the attachment to one more real than the other? Is murder more “understandable” over one than the other? The virtual sword isn’t real, but the emotions are.

“It’s just a game.” Sure. That folded American flag is just cloth and dye too. It’s what it means to you that matters. And meaning only exists in your head.