05 Aug 2012 3:55 pm

The big news in the MMO world this past week has been EA/Bioware’s announcement that they are effectively retooling SWTOR as a F2P game, sometime in the fall. This comes hard on the heels of news that SWTOR’s executive producer Rich Vogel has left the company, as layoffs continue at Bioware Austin. Hard times, especially when you consider that the game went F2P in under a year; that’s the rough equivalent of “straight to DVD” in video game terms.

The transition to F2P can be seen a bit as a desperation play — look at D&D online and LOTRO; MMO’s with declining subscriber bases that saw a return to fiscal stability when they ditched the monthly fee. SWTOR apparently needed to maintain a stable population base of a million paying subs, and they’ve recently dipped below that, which seems to have been the final trigger for EA management’s decision.

Putting things in perspective, WoW announced in a recent earnings report that despite the fact that they had lost just a little over a million subscribers since their last report in May, they’re not worried, which gives you an idea of what a juggernaught it is in the MMO space. Blizzard/Activision may be the the only company that can safely demand a subscription from its playerbase these days, both due to long-running loyalty and from the fact that, basically, every expansion is a new game system overlaid on relatively familiar worlds, essentially performing the delicate balancing act of keeping the game fresh and exciting while at the same time providing reassuring and familiar environments to their players. It doesn’t hurt that their massive war chest allows them to constantly tweak the game, either in terms of mechanical balance, new mechanics, or quality-of-life issues.

It’s against all this refinement that new players in the MMO market space have to struggle against. WoW essentially launched in a vacuum (UO and Everquest notwithstanding; those games were essentially moribund by the time WoW launched in 2004). People tend to forget that it didn’t have the smoothest of launches either; massive login queues, laggy worlds, and all manner of janky game and UI behaviour that people put up with because they simply didn’t know any better, or have anything to really compare it to.

Had SWTOR launched in a similar environment, I imagine its player base would have been somewhat more forgiving of its flaws. Instead, it’s feature set and gameplay are constantly compared to the market leader, and, predictably, it comes up short. Worse, there appears to have been some kind of managerial blindness or arrogance in the direction of SWTOR’s development. Despite constantly touting the fourth pillar of story, they seemed to have forgotten that they were working in an MMO, and pillars one to three (exploration, combat and progression) were still massively important. While the class stories were certainly interesting and unique (though they varied in quality) there’s only so much of that to go around, and precious little to do with a character once it reaches maximum level, especially when the end-game grind is poorly implemented and really, not “sticky” enough to keep people subscribed.

Were they expecting people to play this game like a single player RPG? Slowly go through all the stories and progress on one character? In which case, charging a subscription fee for what is essentially a crippled version of KOTOR III seems mightily distateful. If not, then EA/Bioware management’s arrogance seems even more shocking with regards to the decisions they made in gameplay, especially with an eye towards replayability. Alts are the reason that people keep playing long after they’ve finished the story, and yet everything worked against playing an alt — repetitive stories, difficulty in getting a group together for flashpoints, excruciating and occasionally pointless exercises in travel. They eventually (after much hue and outcry on their forums) worked towards fixing them, but again, when you’re a game going against an eight-year established veteran in the same marketplace, you don’t have the luxury of not getting it right the first time, not if you’re charging your players $15 a month.

People tend to be more forgiving of your flaws if they don’t feel like their wallet is suffering because of it. Look at an F2P MMO like Star Trek Online, for instance (possibly the only other fanbase as “built-in” and insane as Star Wars fans). The game, strictly speaking, has no end-game. All of their interesting stories were essentially cut short and haven’t been continued since the game went F2P. What remains, essentially, is Space Pokemon (with their Duty Officer system), a new Fleet System (where guilds can contribute towards the construction of Fleet Starbases), and a really cool space-combat engine in pretty starships (the prettier ones you can pay either real-cash money for and exchange said money for spacebucks with which to buy these ships, or grind dilithium through in-game missions and events and convert it to aforementioned spacebucks through an unregulated player-run arbitrage system). And yet despite the paucity of reasons to keep people playing (and paying), pay they do, enough to keep the game profitable enough for Cryptic and Perfect World Entertainment.

So far, I’m a little iffy on SWTOR’s F2P implementation. It seems like the “free” game is essentially geared towards people who want to play KOTOR III and only that, while everything that makes the game an MMO is locked behind a paywall. On the surface, that doesn’t seem like a bad idea, but most MMO’s who actually make money on F2P do so on the sale of vanity items, rather than through the sale of what were previously core features.

If it seems like I’m down on SWTOR, I am, a little, but not enough for me to wish them ill. While the game has been disappointing so far, it’s mostly in the sense that they released a 2007 MMO in a 2012 marketspace; perhaps the stability offered by going F2P will allow the devs to polish off all the rough corners. One can only hope.

13 Jul 2012 9:00 am

Sometime back in the early 90’s (I’d hazard a guess and say ’92 or ’93), I was seventeen or so, and I fell in love, and then out of love with a girl, and, indirectly, started reading comics again. I’d stopped, more or less, having given up on the facepalmingly bad writing that seemed inherent in cape comics of the time. And then, idly browsing through the weeklies in The Comicshop, I picked up The Sandman #42, and I came across this scene:

Of course, it spoke to me. It was new, and interesting, and addressed my teenaged angst directly, so I bought the comic. And I kept buying it, week after week, collecting back issues in drips and drabs and eventually the full trade paperbacks, because Neil Gaiman‘s writing was great, and the stories he told were engrossing, full of astounding detail, and weirdness and wildness and an epic sense of scale, married to modern sensibilities and leavened with a kind of mythic pathos.

I still remember the excitement I had when The Comicshop finally got in a copy of Sandman #1, with it’s beautifully illustrated (or perhaps, orchestrated) Dave McKean cover. Until then, I had to infer the origins of this story-of-stories, and finally, I had it in my hand, and I devoured each page, each panel with a sense of joy and wonder. This was mirrored, I recall, by the sadness and elation I felt as I closed the cover on Sandman #75 — The Tempest; the end of the story (or as Gaiman is fond of reminding his readers, the beginning of a new story).

That was in 1996. A few trade paperbacks have come out over the years containing stories from within that universe, but aside from that, there hasn’t been much in the way of new Sandman content. And then this was released yesterday:

So in 2013, seventeen years after it ended, a new Sandman series will start up, still written by Neil Gaiman, and I will return to that world again, and be filled with wonder, and I cannot wait.

12 Jul 2012 2:08 pm

Praise be to the flood of new trailers from SDCC! I’ve been awaiting more stuff about Borderlands 2 for a while now, and this has certainly whetted my appetite.

I had a craptonne of fun playing the first Borderlands (and… uh, most of it’s associated DLC). It really hit the “kill and loot” skinner-box piñata out of the park (to massively mangle my metaphors), in a way that not even Diablo 3 managed to satisfy. I mean, I’m still playing Borderlands occasionally, but I’ve given up on D3 entirely (now that it’s RMAH has managed to fund two WoW accounts for the next year and a half — thanks Blizz! It’s like Yog’s Law; in all things RMAH, money flows towards the player).

As for Torchlight 2, maybe that’ll tickle that itch that Diablo 3 failed to scratch in a multiplayer-fantasy-click-and-loot kind of way.

14 Sep 2011 1:44 pm

That little tune, a converted version of Mawaru Penguindrum‘s ending theme, got me looking around the interwebs for more chiptuned music as of late. I’ve been fond of Anamanaguchi’s work for quite some time (I think it was their track Helix Nebula off their Power Supply EP that got me interested), but now I was looking for more, and the Internet has been extravagant in its generosity.

Before finding this multi-part documentary on 8bit culture, I stumbled upon quite a few top 10 lists, many of which referenced Bit Shifter and Nullsleep, and I wholeheartedly endorse their work. Then I stumbled upon Starscream, which is an 8bit Rock Opera about the future and our exploration of space, and my mind was blown — an epiphany akin to first hearing the Protomen’s “Breaking Out”.

I could have probably saved myself a lot of time if I’d managed to find /mu/’s essential 8bit music recommendations; an image that I’ll pass along to you below.

I must say that I’m more partial to Western expressions of 8bit music than the stuff I find coming out of Japan; though I confess that’s largely as it seems more experimental and jazzy than what I’m looking for. This may be related to the fact that most of the chiptune-y stuff that resembles the Western efforts tends to be game or anime related; witness the reflexive awesomeness that is Chiptuned Rockman… a chiptune remix of classic Megaman music.

I’ll leave you now with the weirdest and coolest video I found on this research run — an 8bit version of the Doctor Horrible musical (music and simulated gameplay!)

 

01 Sep 2011 9:21 pm

Despite the kerfuffle of my usual PAX crew’s confusion over transport methods to the Emerald City, our final choice to take the Amtrak down proved more than suitable, even with the crazy WiFi congestion in the passenger cars. More to the point, this was the first time in seven years of PAX’ing that I hadn’t driven The Major down, and not having to concern myself with traffic or parking this trip resulted (to skip to the end of a long-winded story) in what can arguably considered the most relaxing PAX experience I’ve had in years.

Normally the next few days after PAX are spent in a form of fevered recovery (sometimes literally), but this time, I had enough energy to squire the ebulliently charming Dr. Read about town as she settled her trans-national affairs and still manage to make the Protomen concert at the Biltmore that Monday night. And that’s after three nights of sleeping on a hotel room floor, pounding Expo Hall pavement and queuing up like a well-mannered Canadian lad to see the show exclusives. Thus far, I’m in favor of repeating this “no driving” experiment next year. Though with better preparation, hopefully; one of our number decided to come to the show late, after all the tickets had sold out; he ended up shelling more than two bills for his three day pass (and I’d say, he got more than his money’s worth). At the very least, none of us got scammed with the fake badges that were being hawked by scalpers.

Of PAX itself, what can be said about it that a thousand gaming blogs and media sites haven’t already covered. PAX really is not one monolithic event; it’s better understood as comprised of a number of separate PAXes, the sum of which forms a giant mechanical lion-robot — er wait. But yes, there’s Tabletop PAX (to which I lost two members of our train-ride crew all weekend, and more power to ’em), Expo Hall PAX, Panel PAX, D&D PAX (which, I suppose, could be considered a supbset of Tabletop), and Event PAX (like the QR Code treasure hunt, or the Omegathon, or the concerts).

Over the years I’ve ended up narrowing my PAX focus down to Expo Hall and a few select panels, with a smattering of tabletop thrown in when my feet start to hurt (shameful geek secret: I’m not terribly fond of board games, though I won’t turn down a well designed card-based game if it comes my way).

My memory of the weekend ends up being a fractured series of vignettes, as the overwhelming nature of the shows-within-shows (yo dawg) manages to defy easy comprehension or recollection, so I’ll go with my impressions of what I saw.

I’m glad I got to get some hands on with Mass Effect 3, as that’s managed to assuage some of my fears (justified, I suppose, by the lackluster nature of Dragon Age 2). It does look very slick, and I do appreciate the increased rpg-ness of it (something sorely missing in ME2).

Quantum Conundrum (from Kim Swift of Portal by way of Airtight Games via Square Enix) looks very good, even if it doesn’t feel like a huge deviation from her previous work; more evolution than revolution, but considering the pedigree, this is hardly a bad thing.

Torchlight II’s multiplayer is, if possible, more fun than I would have thought from my brief hands-on time spent with it at PAX 2010, and the $20 price point and the reassurance that it remains highly mod-able means that I’ll probably be buying 4-packs and gifting it to friends on Steam.

I managed to talk to Notch, briefly, about the direction that Minecraft was taking, and I got to see a nice preview of Scrolls; neither of these things were particularly illuminating, but they still managed to entertain me immensely.

Vanessa Saint-Pierre Delacroix & Her Nightmare sticks out as the indie winner for this PAX; even as a 2D puzzler mapped onto a cubical surface, some element of the action reminds me, inexplicably, of Cave Story, and this can only be a good thing.

SW:TOR was mostly recycled messaging (and footage! it’s the same damn trailers we’ve seen a thousand times before), but I did manage to catch their end-game implementation. As a current WoW raider, I can’t say I was impressed, but then again, I think that’s mostly because I was hoping they’d innovate away from set piece big-boss encounters and come up with…. I don’t know? Something more magical? More dynamic? I may have set my expectations too high, perhaps. Still, Bioware’s forte is in its storytelling ability (and their constant drive to hire more writers does show a certain fervent commitment to creating a lot of out-of-the-gate content), so that will be the thing that will get me playing it, when it ships. Whether it holds is a different matter entirely.

Because I was in the SW:TOR panel, I managed to miss the Gearbox panel (and more’s the pity, as they had pizza! and, uh, a free copy of Borderlands 2 for all attendees), but then again there’s no doubt that I was going to get Borderlands 2 as a Day One release anyway. And in any case, I was more drawn to the D&D Through the Ages panel held thereafter, since Dave “Zeb” Cook was a panelist, and he was largely responsible for all the time I sunk into AD&D 2nd Edition throughout my highschool and early university years. Fascinating discussion, overall, especially when it came to the reasonings behind various system mechanics. And, of course, my favorite quote of the weekend — “If you enjoy hard work in gaming, then you’ll love 4th Edition [D&D] as a player, and 3rd Edition as a GM”.

On the topic of panels, this year’s Acquisitions Inc run was a standout event, rivaling last year’s Prisoners of Slaughterfast. This year, it was “The Last Will and Testament of James Darkmagic I”, and my god, was it ever fun. All I can say is, I totally want my future D&D games to have musical accompaniment. I’ll update this post once I can find an official video link. In the meantime, have this musical intro to the player characters.

On a personal tangent, it shames me to think that it took this long to realize how much more it is about the people I see it with than the event itself. PAX is one of the few times I get to see my scattered crew in one place. These are the people I gamed with, shot the late-night shit with, shed blood sweat and tears with as we slogged over university papers (both academic and extracurricular), and who now live all over the country. So yeah, games and concerts and hoopla notwithstanding, I’m really looking forward to PAX 2012 so I can see these crazy people all in one place again. With that, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite videos from PAX — Tycho, inveigled upon to Just Dance.