Thursday, September 6, 2012

Features All MMO's Should Have - Sidekicking from City of Heroes

Before I begin, I'd like to say I whole-hardheartedly  support the groups trying to save City of Heroes. I don't know if they can do it, and I'm not keeping my hopes up, but this would lift the spirits of many of the people who are down because of the game closing. I truly feel like we aren't losing a game, we are losing a home.

With that, I will begin another series, entitled "Features All MMO's Should Have". These are features that I believe all MMO's should launch with or at least make a priority during their development. Innovations comes in leaps and bounds in this industry, as we all may be aware of the huge contrast in playstyles between Guild Wars 2 and Mists of Pandaria. Similar, yes, but a vastly different experience. Therefore, I feel there are certain features that most of the industry should have by now, but for some reason they don't.

The first of these is the Sidekicking system found in both City of Heroes and Guild Wars 2. GW2 uses it in a more seamless fashion, but both titles will do just fine as an example. This system is meant to address a major flaw in the leveling system, and that is its nature to keep people from playing together.

This story may elaborate my point. My first experience with WoW was during Burning Crusade, where myself and a friend leveled up a Rogue and Hunter together. We played largely during the same times, so keeping together was never really a problem. We stayed roughly the same level. However, as the school year switched into a new semester, our availabilities shifted with them. Suddenly I was able to play much less than he was.

Due to this, his new Paladin got far ahead of my new Mage, and I ended up abandoning the character. Why bother when my partner was level 49 and I was 25? It was too far of a gap to cross. I couldn't do his content and doing my content was a waste of time for him. Our other options would be to force each other to only play those characters while we were playing together, which only served to restrain us, or for me to play catch up with his character alone while he didn't have time to play. I played those character to play with him, not to go around by myself.

The sidekicking system allows higher level players to play and receive reasonable rewards for content lower than them. This allows players to level at their own pace, and no matter what level you are you can find something to do with your friend. Furthermore, it expands the content a single player can do. If you have multiple areas with the same level range, one player can do all of them without having to worry about slowing down their progression. They don't have to worry about the most efficient way to do things, only the best way to have fun.

Online games shouldn't have to be about level anymore. They should be about playing with your friends and having fun. It's about time all games provide that.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

I'm Tired of Saying Goodbye

This post is gonna get a little personal.

City of Heroes is closing down. This is coming at a time in my life where, as the title implies, I'm tired of saying goodbye to things in my life. You see, these past two years have been pretty rough for my family. Starting two years ago, my Oma (dutch for Grandmother) passed away. Then six months later, my Abuelita. Then my Opa. Less than a month ago, I found out my Abuelito is dying from cancer, and has six months to live.

I'm not comparing the shutting down of a video game to these personal tragedies, not at all. I would gladly give up every game I own for the chance to see them again, twice over. But online games have always been a refuge for me. When I don't want to worry about money, I figure out which WoW class I want to level next, or a concept for a City of Heroes character. It's been a constant in my life, a place where I can go to socialize with people who share a common interest, are nerdy like me and I don't have to worry about things going on in my personal life.

These past five years, City of Heroes has been a reliable place I can go. In Paragon City, I could fly around, run at super speeds or leap tall buildings while beating up the various (and sometimes ridiculous) villains of the universe. Or be a cheesy, dastardly villain who steals P.L.O.T. devices. I knew Paragon City, and I fit in there.

This post is delayed because I didn't know how to respond to the announcement. I read it on Twitter and thought it was a joke. City of Heroes had endured through many of the ups and downs of the industry, surely they wouldn't shut it down out of nowhere. But they did, and I felt kicked in the gut. Now, as this is sinking in I find myself in the predicament of trying to figure out how to say goodbye. There is so much I have never experienced. I have never had a max level character. I have never gone on a Hami Raid, or defeated Statesman or Lord Recluse.

I could try to do these things, to flesh out my experience in the game before I leave. Or I could sit and remember the times we had. The many Frostfire runs, the ridiculous adventures of myself and my friend, The Boogie Knight, and the times I spent with the Jerks Super Group started by Scott Sharkey. Words cannot express the quality of the community and the Roleplay I experienced in this game as well.

I find myself groping for another game to fill the void before this one leaves me, and I'm coming up empty. I bought Guild Wars 2 today, a decision many may disagree with due to NCSoft being the one who shut down the game. I don't blame them, I've seen the quarter call earnings. Aion brought in twice as much money as City of Heroes, and nobody I know has heard of anything from that game in months. I hope it will fill the void but I truly don't know. Even World of Warcraft cannot provide me the experience I found in that game. I doubt anything ever will.

What I am left with is a profound sense that no part of my life is sacred from the feeling of loss. Online games used to be my refuge, and now I am acutely aware that this ground is not safe either. It is difficult for me to trust to begin with, and investing myself in a new game will be significantly harder. You never do trust as easily as you do the first time.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Turning Lies into Marketing

By now, I think we're all familiar with the pattern: A game launches with a subscription, they don't get the numbers they want, and then they go free to play. Sometimes the company is quiet about it until its second launch, othertimes they try to be coy and fail miserably. As I mentioned in the last post of the Worst Case Scenario series, the F2P revolution always comes on the heels of the subscription model failing.

I titled this post "Turning Lies into Marketing" because I felt that companies always lie about going F2P, due to the stigma it attaches to their game. From what I understand, Secret World is an exception to this as Funcom is not shy about saying they might do it, but for the most part companies are ashamed of it. I say, why lie to your playerbase? Instead, make that transition a feature of your game.

Here's how it works: Take a 3-6 month period after the initial launch  and before you go free to play and call that the "Subscription Head Start". This will act much like a normal MMORPG launch. There is a box to buy and you pay a sub, except unlike normal MMORPG's you launch with a cash shop. The box is not necessary to play the game, but the subscription is, meaning that you can pay 15 bucks and get in for a month without the box. The box merely provides a free month, some cash shop currency, and something along the lines of a Founder's Pack which provides unique items you can't get anywhere else. A mount, a title, a cosmetic item, or whatever they like.

Keep the game running as sub only for however many predetermined months you like. It is important that this length of time is announced beforehand, as otherwise people will feel cheated. This time is known as the "Pre-Launch Subscription Head Start". People pay a sub to get a start on the game before anyone else. Then you have the true launch of the game, which is F2P. When that happens, you switch the model over to a tiered system, where the subscription members can keep paying to get a better experience than the F2P players, who have to pay to unlock things.

This system is transparent, easy to understand, and does not lie about the game's future as a F2P title. In fact, it banks on that as a feature and uses it to sell a head start to players. It's not a subscription game, you merely need to pay one to get ahead of everyone else.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Peter Molyneux and the Cube of Curiosity

An alternative title to this post was "What the Hell is Peter Molyneux up to?"

Seriously though, what is he up to? For background, I follow Peter Molyneux on Twitter and in the news because his old studio, Lionhead, is responsible for one of the first PC games I ever fell in love with (Black & White) and the man has an astounding ability to get people pumped about anything. In the time leading up to Fable's release, he promised us the moon and the stars, that this game would wake up in the morning and serve you eggs, toast, orange juice and bacon. Is it love? To Peter Molyneux it was.

We all know how that went, but you can't blame the man for having stars in his eyes and being able to make other people see them. But this new project is weird. This game, now called "Curiosity: What's Inside the Cube?", places all players in the same room with the same cube. You are given tools to pick away at this cube, but they are small. It is a group effort to open and dig through the layers. From what I understand, you can collect coins to get bigger picks, or even buy them with real money. But the catch is, only the person who delivers the final tap will see it.

I don't know whether to be mad, confused, excited, or apathetic. Molyneux promises what is inside will be "truly amazing" and "absolutely unique", but quite frankly, I think it's just an exercise of his hype abilities. For all we know, the only thing inside the cube is a youtube link to Rick Astley's "Never Gonna Give You Up". And if the final person doesn't have a recording tool available? Well, then the rumors fly, and I assume the game starts up again with new hype.

It's new. It's interesting. It's confusing. I don't know what to make of it. Is it art? Is it a game? Is it a social experiment? Is it an April Fool's Joke? I have no clue whatsoever. Do you?

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Worst Case Scenario - The End of Subscription Gaming

I'd try to make myself look awesome for the fact that I wrote a post about SWTOR going free to play before it was announced, but everyone and their mother knew it was gonna happen so I'd just look like a moron. So, let's take care of some business before we begin: I apologize for my long absence, as real life caught up with me and I found myself sucked into World of Warcraft again. After some thinking, and a lot of post ideas coming up about WoW, I decided not to bombard this blog with those posts. I want to talk about the game, but don't feel like those discussions are up to the style of this blog. Because of this I've created The Westfall Field, a side blog meant for my WoW experiences. Pardon the look of it, I'm still fiddling with the layout settings. I'll be keeping my analytical and general MMORPG posts here, and will still mention WoW, but if I feel it is a topic that is solely for fans of that game it will be moved there.

Because if I don't update one blog enough, clearly the answer is that I need two.

So. For the finale of "Worst Case Scenario" we have a topic that I briefly touched upon in the SWTOR F2P article, and that is the death of subscription games. Many MMO fans are cheering this happening, partially because it means change in the genre and partially because I think they are cheap. I forgive them, because I am cheap too. However, that does not mean I agree with the idea that subscriptions should die.

These days, the rise of F2P games has been accomplished at the cost of subscription games. I can't count very many games lately that have launched free to play, but conversions from sub games are a dime a dozen. It's a proven business model, so why not? However, the saturation of F2P titles in the market can prove even more dangerous for the genre than subs. You see, one of the main hurdles of creating an MMO is the high price point. Many indie developers cannot hope to compete in the market because creating an offline game is much easier, and any subscription revenue would barely cover the costs to create new content due to how few players would be paying. Consider how worse that would be if F2P releases became the norm.

Indie developers would be shut out of the market entirely. Should the consumer base accept F2P launches as the norm, launching with a box and a sub to try to recoup development costs would be suicide for the game. Why would anyone buy when there are so many titles that they can get for free? Less small studios means less risks taken. SWTOR has proven that big companies are only willing to pay into models that are proven, and when the only models they think work are BC and WOTLK-era World of Warcraft, we have ourselves a near standstill in the evolution of games. I can't ignore the contributions of titles like The Secret World, but those are exceptions in a stagnant genre. Make F2P the standard, and the indie developers will put their resources into fields that they can compete in. I'm a WoW fan, but we don't need another title like SWTOR on the market.

You then may note that the trend in the industry is starting to turn to releasing a subscription game, and then switching free to play. Funcom has been quite open about this, but SWTOR was about as subtle as a tank driving through a residential neighborhood. They denied it all the way while driving directly towards it. It was borderline ridiculous the press releases they sent out. "You know, free to play is a good market to be in. Not that we're going to do that. We're just browsing." That kind of behavior may garner a few laughs now, but that will wear off fast. And what you are left with is a lack of trust.

Why would a gamer buy a subscription game now when they can wait a few months to get the game F2P, and with all the launch bugs ironed out? The answer is only impatience and hype. Those can only last for so long until mistrust of companies hyping up their games sets in. Deceptive marketing techniques won't sell a bad game, and especially one that is blatantly trying to use whatever system makes them the most money at the given time. We gamers know that this is a business, and businesses need to thrive, but changing payment models really makes us consider the money we put into a game and where it is going.

Even with all that, my least favorite part is what I mentioned above: F2P titles arrive on the death of subscription games. If there is any stigma that this type of model needs to distance itself from, it is that the company just did it because the game was failing. And though the word "Free" brings in customers, how many are driven away because they think it is only free because it sucked? I want to see this model succeed on its own merits, and not based on the death of the subscription service. And let the subscription service evolve to compete with F2P titles. If this genre needs anything, its a little more innovation.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Worst Case Scenario - Gambling with Games

Allow me to begin with a story: There is a Wal-Mart near my home I go to pick up groceries at, and if I have some time, I like to wander the electronics section. For a while now they have had a large Skylanders display set there. For those who don't know, Skylanders is a game that includes a platform you hook up to your system, and when you place any of their figures onto this platform that character appears in the game for you to play as. It combines a fun hack-n-slash kind of gameplay with a collect-em-all sort of mentality that I have found very charming.

I found myself wondering how this sort of marketing could be brought to true online gaming (Skylanders has an online version, just not a fully fledged online world) and my thoughts drifted to other miniature based games...and then found myself mortified at the possibilities.

Online gamers are familiar with the recent trend that some F2P titles have picked up of the grab bags. You pay actual money for a bag/box/safe/thing and you open it, receiving a random prize. Those titles have received flak for it, because this typically requires throwing a lot of money at it in order to get something you want. The numbers for getting everything are astronomical.

How does this relate to Skylanders, you ask? Well, currently Skylanders shows you the kind of figure you are buying. Imagine a game, like the HeroClix or any trading card game ever, where the characters, items and power ups you get are random. And that is the point of the entire game: An electronic trading card game.

That is my Worst Case Scenario of the week. A game that blatantly and obviously sells random chances at electronic items. Cards and physical objects have collector's value and could be worth something if the game becomes popular. But electronic items are at the mercy of the game itself. If the game ever shuts down, everything you spent collecting those things is gone. This is no different than any other game, but a chance system requires far more monetary investment than a subscription. Hundreds of dollars gone without a chance of turnaround.

Chance bags are currently a nightmare for games, yet nearly an unavoidable option. Sure, they paint your game as being unscrupulous, but the amount of money they rake in is no small amount. I'm sure the temptation arises, with the intention of using the profits to make things that are fair to gamers. And I'm sure the temptation to do it again is always there. Now imagine an entire game based around that. Let's assume two different types of currency: In-game earned and cash bought, similar to League of Legends style. Each can buy the same things, they just require different amounts depending on the currency used. Winning card matches gains you currency to buy booster packs to get more cards to win with. It's gambling and skill based gameplay all in one. There is a reason the real thing is so much more popular.

Yet, an electronic version requires so fewer resources and balancing is simple. The temptation of the chance bag profit? Multiply that into an entire game and you have an untapped market that just reeks of exploitation. Should it ever rise into major popularity it will be a sad day for online gamers, and I think the company behind it would deserve all the hate mail they get.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Worst Case Scenario: SWTOR Goes F2P

Apologies for the delay in posting, I've had some silly fiascos involving a broken down car.

So, as the title implies, SWTOR going Free to Play is a Worst-Case Scenario for me. This coming from someone who was once the lore columnist for Force Junkies and is no small fan of the setting. I have long since stopped playing the game, but the fact that the developers are openly discussing F2P has some very troubling inplications.

Now, many of us have our attention diverted for the moment, what with the Secret World out, and Guild Wars 2 and Mists of Pandaria on the horizon. It seems that SWTOR, once vaunted for its devotion to the 4th pillar, has been largely left by the wayside. By the way, did you know they are up to patch 1.3 now and added a dungeon finder? Oh, and they are adding a companion based off of HK-47. Didn't know that? The Devs know that you don't. And they are trying to get attention back to their game.

Why is it bad though? So many games have started with subs and moved on to the F2P model. But here's the issue: None of those games were Star Wars: The Old Republic. This game had an IP that drew on two huge fanbases. It pumped its marketing into the fact that it would be story based, the next big thing for MMORPG's. It put itself on a pedestal and failed to live up to the hype. Now it's got a long way to fall, and it could take big budget subscription MMO's with it.

Let's forget WoW for a moment, as it has proven itself a sustainable and profitable subscription game. It is an oddity in the MMORPG market by that virtue alone. No, SWTOR was supposed to be our last hope. It was supposed to prove that with a good IP and a solid budget you could create a game that could sustain itself on subscriptions. We were wrong. They didn't make the game fans were hoping for, and because of it they were largely forgotten. Let's face it: Strip away the storytelling and you basically have a very pretty, science fiction version of WoW during Burning Crusade. The Legacy system is a stand out feature, but it wasn't enough.

This -will- make companies hesitate before spending money on MMORPG's. You may think that this would make them shift to F2P titles, but we all know that the box sales do the company wonders for paying off all the work it took to make the game. That boost is required to pay the bills. Launch a F2P title and people will try it, hate it and not spend a dime.

No, this failure will bring something worse than just a lack of investors in the MMO industry. This will bring a scary trend where companies will deliberately release a game with a subscription and a box, and then switch to F2P once the crowd dies down. This won't become a strategy for lackluster games, this will become the status quo for any large company looking to invest. And it's completely legitimate because it's the last proven business practice left in the industry. Subscriptions can no longer sustain a game.

SWTOR going Free to Play is the title on my list that is most likely to come true, and I believe it will. And I certainly will not be enjoying the fallout.