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.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Worst Case Scenario: Zynga Buys Blizzard

And thus begins another series, this one entitled "Worst Case Scenario". There have been some interesting bits of news lately that have left a few games with undetermined fates. This leads to some fun speculation from the community. Let's play Debbie Downer and pick out the worst possible scenarios that could happen. It'll be fun!

As you may have guessed, the topic of this one relates to the possibility that Vivendi may sell of Activision/Blizzard. Now, I can't say that I understand much about how a company is sold, how much shareholders have a say in the direction of a company, or even if the scenario in the title is possible, but currently Vivendi plans to sell its shares on the open market soon if there are no buyers. In which case...

What if Zynga bought majority share in Blizzard? Hell, what if Zynga outright owned Blizzard? I'm not trying to paint Zynga as a demonic company (that would be too easy) but there are undoubtably many complaints about the casual direction the game has been going. What if the casual game king started calling the shots at Blizzard?

First in my mind would be Blizzard's sudden integration with Facebook. Why shouldn't Facebook update with your achievements? Sounds like fun. You can even invite friends to WoW via Facebook posts on their wall. And do so automatically! And money to progress in the game? Of course they'd have a hell of a lot of that!

Alright, perhaps that's being a bit drastic. Even a company like Zynga knows that making such drastic changes would alienate the playerbase and cause the value of the stock that they just bought to plummet.  But with the casual direction that Mists of Pandaria is going, would Blizzard be able to take some pointers from the casual game behemoth? Absolutely.

Let's examine what Zynga is best at in games: Tiny, short actions that allow for meaningful interaction while at the same time requiring a lot of dedication in order to progress. World of Warcraft fits many of those ideals neatly. I can currently log in and do three quests, probably in less than ten minutes, and still feel like I accomplished something. I did that today. With MoP's additions of pet battles, the Tillers farm segment, and the massive amount of daily quests it would be easy to break play sessions into bite sized bits.

Assume for a moment that Zynga would honor any promise that Blizzard already made for the game. If you want to log in, do some dailies and maybe a pet battle or two, that would be fine. But micro-transactions would be king. How would you like to buy another raid lockout? Or perhaps remove your weekly limit for Random Dungeon rewards? You can bet you'd be able to pay for that. Pets in pet battles with extra stats or bonuses? That could be an option as well.

Let's make no mistake, these changes would be introduced in a way that would be spun as improvements to the game. Play as you want, as much as you want, for a small extra fee. You sub buys you something, but a little extra can buy you more. I wouldn't be surprised if the items that remove your weekly limit for Dungeons had charges, so you had to keep buying them week after week.

I could spend pages listing all sorts of things they could sell, but the important part is how content would change. Bare bones content would be released for those with a sub, and adventure packs would start to reign supreme. Zynga abandoned Farmville, and they would absolutely be alright with burning through WoW's massive playerbase for all of their money and then dumping it when the train runs to the end of its tracks.

So, worst case scenario? We see the end of WoW. Entirely.