May 31, 2012

[BBC: Guns, Girls, & Games]

A great BBC radio documentary has just been released, that includes interviews from the gals at the blogs 'Fat, Ugly or Slutty?' and 'Not in the Kitchen Anymore':

"Does the world of video gaming have a problem with sexual harassment?
Women are one of the fastest growing groups of people playing video games and in the US they now make up 42% of gamers overall. But life can be tough for them in this male-dominated world.
For Assignment, James Fletcher reports on recent harassment controversies, the women and men campaigning for change, and whether big gaming companies are doing enough to address the issue."

Listen to it here!

Related Listening:
[CBC Radio] Women and Gaming: Smashing Stereotypes

May 26, 2012

[SWTOR's Failure Was Not 'Random Chance']

  Let me be clear first off -- I mean 'failure' as in the game clearly did not meet the expectations of success it was aiming for, not that the game is without any merit whatsoever. With that said:

  The disappointing performance of Star Wars: The Old Republic was not the result of a bad 'roll of the dice' or because the market is saturated with MMOs. It was because of a clear lack of knowledge and competency on BioWare's part to design a strong MMORPG, despite getting around $200 million thrown at them.

  Firstly, any claims that SWTOR's failure to explode into a massive hit will harm the industry are not counting the number of MMORPGs that have been simultaneously available for the past 5+ years. Count the F2Ps, because they outnumber P2Ps by a large margin, though most may be virtually unknown by the majority of sub-model-only players (and regardless, the F2P MMORPG playerbase is plenty robust with new games coming out regularly, obviously because people are still interested in playing these types of games). By that metric, the MMORPG market is saturated with games at pretty much every point in time and has been for several years now, albeit with games of varying quality. Before WoW was released, nobody could imagine that the market for every MMO combined could possibly number in the millions of players, let alone the playerbase of one game. So apparently the situation here is more along the lines of 'if you build [a game people want to play], they will come'.

  I won't rehash all the ways SWTOR was designed from the core out as just a variant flavor of World of Warcraft's basic gameplay mechanics, because that has been done to death in many places already. The fact is, in an environment shaped by 7 years of the dominance of WoW and scattered with the corpses of games released since 2004 attempting to ape WoW's success by copying it's gameplay to varying degrees, the majority of MMO gamers are just plain tired of it. And because they've become very familiar with the tropes of WoW's formula, they've also become a whole heck of a lot pickier when it comes to judging any game that tries to make it's own spin on it. So far the only game that has done this and succeeded has been Rift. So the right question to ask is not 'Is the market over-saturated with MMOs' but 'Can the current market support WoW and 2 sub-based WoW variants at the same time?' And the answer might just be 'no'. In the words of ArenaNet's founder Jeff Strain in 2007:
"Don't be fooled by the much-hyped success of the top MMOs on the market. The game industry is littered with the carnage of MMOs that have failed over the past few years. Due largely to the social nature of MMOs, gamers rarely commit to more than one or two MMOs at a time. This is in contrast to the traditional game market, in which there is room for many games to be successful, even within the same genre. You may play ten different action games this year, but you are very unlikely to play more than one or two MMOs. This means that it is not enough to make a great game – instead you must make a game that is so overwhelmingly superior that it can actively break apart an established community and bring that community to your game."
 He may as well have written that today, for all it's remained relevant (the only thing I would add is that it goes double for any game attempting to run under the '$15 a month sub fee' model nowadays). For anyone to conclude that the failure of games like Project Copernicus and SWTOR's lack of popularity means the MMO industry itself is in peril seems to forget that game studios being run into the ground because of poor management is hardly new. If anything it's showed that the MMO industry is not immune to the reality that exists everywhere in business: that throwing tons of money at a game (or using a popular IP) doesn't automatically mean it will be a smash hit. Any problem for the industry here is a self-caused one: disinterest in the playerbase because gamers are getting tired of companies rehashing the same-old ideas with prettier skins and expecting people to keep paying $15 a month to play the same game they've already been playing for the last 10+ years.

   SWTOR bet the lion's share of their hundreds of millions of dollars on the premise that the way to outdo their competition would be to make individual class stories as interactive and cinematic as possible (since that is their studios' strength in singleplayer RPGs) and setting them as the core of the entire game, while simply copying 'what's worked before' for everything else. But they attempted to 'innovate' in the completely wrong direction because they lacked fundamental understanding of what makes a strong MMORPG -- the long-term replayability of a game's core mechanics, as well as underestimating just how tired many people are of those gameplay systems that 'worked so well for WoW'. So after their awesome single-player interactive movies were all finished, most SWTOR players looked around at the rest of the game, said 'meh' and unsubscribed.

Related Reading:
How to Create a Successful MMO [GDC 2007]
Behind the Scenes of Star Wars: The Old Republic
Story vs Persistent Game

May 21, 2012

[Allods Online: 2 Years Later: Part 2]

[Go to Part 1]

  The first of the major changes I noticed (which was added to the game last year) is a new Tradeable Currency system. Basically, it allows cash shop currency to be sold for ingame gold. However, unlike most games who have this type of system, the exchage rate is set by the game itself rather than by players, based on how much of the tradeable currency (Gem Shards) is in the system at any given time. This automatic price control is an interesting way to keep monopolizing pay-players from price fixing the market. It also allows free players access to the cash shop without spending any real money if they so choose by basically letting them use their ingame gold to buy cash shop items. In the cash shop itself there is a tab that toggles the payment option for items between gPotatoes (the normal pay-currency) and Shards.

The Shard/Gold Exchange

  One of the things I tend to regularly buy in F2P games are mounts, so this aspect of the cash shop was another new thing for me (since I had stopped playing the game before they were released). The system in Allods Online is a bit unique, in that in addition to being able to acquire multiple different mounts, they can also be leveled up and reskinned. Mounts (and various different skins for them) are available as special event prizes, lottery box items, and stand-alone cash shop purchases. There are also character costume sets and even (for some reason I don't even want to speculate about) an entire tab just for underwear.

Fluffy hats!

  Another interesting mechanic added since the game's release is the Reincarnation system. Basically, after doing a series of quests, high-level players can unlock the ability to create a linked alt (Incarnation) that will share various items and bonuses with their main character. Besides the money-saving aspects of not having to buy new mounts, bag upgrades, etc., both characters can learn one of the abilities from the other's skill set that otherwise their class would not be able to, which opens up some interesting class customization possibilities.

  However, something I discovered as I was playing the game, is that once again there is a cash shop drama brewing, this time around an upcoming addition to the game's Patronage system. To explain: Characters all have a 'Patron Saint' that bestows temporary stat buffs and healing skills when a certain item (Incense) is used. These buffs gain experience through use and can be upgraded to be stronger via quests (up to level 4). The upcoming addition of a fifth level that can only be earned after enough of a certain cash shop item is bought is upsetting many players because the real-money cost for enough items to reach this rank (which appears to be mostly important in endgame PvP) would equal hundreds of dollars. Many people are angry over the 'pay 2 win' aspect of this mechanic, and I can see their perspective. For some reason, even after two years, the cash shop in Allods seems to periodically experiment with a new game mechanic added specifically to force players to spend money. Even though in every past case such mechanics have ended up eventually removed, the bad feelings they inspire linger on.

At level 23, my Patronage Level is 3.

   I have to admit I really don't understand the coercive attitude the Allods devs seem to keep falling back on when their game could be so much more popular if they simply advertised it's strengths (like their really neat Astral Ship content where players sail in search of bosses to fight as well as engage in ship combat with the opposite faction) instead of periodically trying to gouge their most invested players. Time will tell if the game eventually resolves this issue the same way it has fixed it's past monetization mistakes, but even so it's sad to see yet another example of the game's community being upset by a cash shop decision. Making your players feel like they're being taken advantage of is a big FAIL for any F2P game, whether or not that perception is accurate. It's also funny that at the same time when I decide to come back to give Allods another try after hearing about so many good additions to it, that this happens again. =P

Player-crewed Astral Ships can discover new lands and treasures.

  In conclusion: For those who still enjoy a 'classic' quest-based F2P MMORPG, Allods Online delivers a solid PvE experience with lots of nice features and the game does a lot of things well, so I recommend trying it out for those reasons alone. But in the end I'm left rather conflicted -- on one hand there are many things about the game I think are fun, but in a F2P MMO being able to trust that you won't be punished for not paying 'enough' (or at all) is very important, and I don't feel Allods has that trust. Therefore, I can only recommend it for casual/PvE players since I think that most serious min-maxers or PvP-oriented players will end up frustrated at the endgame unless they don't mind paying the costs (in grind and/or money) to reach the top level of performance. The majority of the cash shop is, in my opinion, fair to the casual player who is not too hung up on staying on the bleeding-edge of the power curve.

After two years Allods Online has grown a lot and I really think it's one of the better F2P games out there. It's just a shame that instead of finding a synergy with it's cash shop, it seems to still struggle to find a balance between profit and playability, even after all this time.

Related Reading:
An Allods Online Beginner's Guide

May 18, 2012

[Allods Online: 2 Years Later: Part 1]

Allods Online was one of those cases of poor F2P monetization decisions on the part of devs ruining what could have been a very good thing. During it's (cash shop-free) beta period, many MMO bloggers praised it's beautiful art design, airship combat and exploration endgame, and solid (if not wildly innovative) gameplay. There were dungeons and PvP, and quests, and the world was done in a familiar yet still enjoyable fantasy style with a Russian twist.

I myself enjoyed the time I spent in Beta, which was up to about level 20, and as Allods was my second foray into F2P MMOs (the first being Mabinogi, whose cash shop I rather liked and which had given me a positive first time F2P experience) I was not overly worried about how things would play out at release as much as some of the folks for whom this was their first try at this new payment model. It seemed as though many longtime sub-model MMO players were giving Allods a try at a time when F2P was still a fairly radical concept, and they were actually enjoying it!

And then release came around, and the cash shop was unveiled, with ludicrously high prices, and blatant 'pay to win' items. And then right after, there were patches to nerf character combat strength and buff death penalties to the point where it was impossible to play unless you were regularly buying items from the shop. PvE was made agonizingly slow for nonpaying players since now it took unreasonably long to kill even one mob unless you had the cash shop buff, and dying would literally leave your stats so reduced from the rez penalty that the game was basically telling players to 'either pay up or log out'. The promising Beta which had engendered so much positive press was exposed as a blatant bait and switch, and many MMO players who were for the first time trying out a F2P game had all their worst fears about the model justified.

Player outcry was immediate, and the hype turned bitterly sour, permanently damaging what I feel could have been one of the first mainstream hit F2P MMOs at that time. The devs basically tripped right out of the starting gate and fell squarely on their faces. The stigma from those first few months after launch has remained ever since, even though the game has apparently been doing fairly well and has released regular content updates and new features even with a reduced playerbase. Allods Online seems to be on a permanently low-key profile nowadays and many folks seem to avoid it because of it's sins from two years ago. But I had heard recently that things had changed in the past year and a half, and that both the cash shop and the game had been adjusted and balanced for some time now, with the hostile game mechanics that tried to punish players into spending money having been discarded long ago. So I decided to hop back in and see what (if anything) had changed in the cash shop since 2010.

[Go to Part 2]

May 15, 2012

[Guild Wars 2 is Evolutionary, Not Revolutionary]

  One aspect of many of the promotional shpiels for Guild Wars 2 that I disagree with now that I've played the game is the concept that the game is The Next Generation of MMO That Even People Who Hate MMOs Should Try. This is a claim we've heard from dev studios many times in the past since the release of WoW, and in every case the reality has been the opposite -- with the game mostly having the same core gameplay guts as World of Warcraft with just a new skin and some shallow diversionary bits added on. So understandably many people are skeptical of the similar-sounding hype building around Guild Wars 2.

  I myself virtually ignored the development of the Guild Wars 2 until the very end of last year, when it was announced that the game was definitely seeing release in 2012 (In general I'm not a hype-follower of unfinished projects that have nothing to offer except fancy promises -- Hero's Journey taught me that lesson). Once I started researching the game, I found lots of things that sounded really neat but I still wasn't going to start get invested with too much excitement before trying it myself first. Since I haven't played a sub-MMO in nearly 2 years I didn't mind putting forth the full purchase price in order to get a spot in the announced Beta Weekend Events -- it's been long enough since I've bothered to seriously look at any AAA MMO that I felt it was worth the risk of disappointment.

  I have to say, that once I got in and starting getting a feel for the game, I was sold. True, the public has only seen levels 1-20 so far and for all we know all the PvE content after that could be a a total fiasco, but it really feels as if the core mechanics of the game are solid and interesting enough that weaknesses in PvE content (if they exist) might not be enough to kill the game. If nothing else the PvP alone seems to be a big hit with the folks who like that sort of thing, which speaks for the soundness of the combat mechanics. And the Dynamic Events just -feel- seamless and organic and so much more fun than the staid cliche of text boxes, mob-tapping, spawn camping, and drop-farming that for some reason has never changed since MMORPGs were invented. And as a multitude of others have already said, the detail and love that has obviously gone into the art design, animations, and lore of the game is breathtaking in it's scope.

  But as my topic title says, I think some people are hyping this game in the wrong way. Guild Wars 2, in a move similar to Vanilla WoW's original strategy, has taken many of the annoying, boring and negative gameplay traits of so many MMORPGs (which have for some reason still been held onto as 'core aspects of the genre') and thrown them out the window. But it is still a familiar MMORPG at it's heart, and is not some kind of total revolution in online RPG experiences.

  If you hate MMORPGs (or Themepark MMOs at all), you need to ask yourself what about them isn't fun for you, and then see if GW2 has changed that genre convention in their game. Because if you just hate being sent by people to wander the countryside on the behalf of NPCs and killing monsters for exp? Then you will be rolling your eyes at having to do these same things in GW2. Do you hate having to read lore or pay attention to quest dialogues? Then the Personal Story aspects of the game will fall flat for you. If you think 'playing dress-up with your character' is inane, you will not be interested in the main carrot of dungeons and crafting in GW2 (unique item skins). If you want full action FPS-style combat, then the hybrid model in GW2 with limited dodging and the ability to tab target will not scratch that itch. The game is also not a Sandbox; those who chafe at anything other than Total Roleplaying Freedom will not find that here, either.

   BUT if you still love MMORPGs as a genre; if you're still into the whole 'explore a fantasy world and experience a story' thing and are just tired of stuff like static 'hotkey skill rotation while standing still' combat and gear treadmills and quest logs and mob-stealing and outleveling content and being unable to play with friends if they're the wrong level, wrong class, on the wrong server, or in the wrong faction, then there might be something for you in Guild Wars 2. But if you're burned out on the whole quest-based RPG thing and want to play a fantasy-themed Entirely New Type of Game? Then keep looking because such a thing has yet to be made and GW2 is not it.

Related Reading:
[RPS] Wot I Think: Guild Wars 2

[Diminished But Not Gone]

Ever since I quit WoW for good in 2010, I've been a MMO nomad. The problem with being tired of WoW's formula but still into RPGs is that so few of the other MMORPGs available during those two years differed significantly from it in their play mechanics, while those that did tended to be too old school in terms of grind or were just not my cup of tea in other areas. I'd resigned myself to dabbling in F2Ps and singleplayer games for the forseeable future, and therefore my interest in blogging waned to pretty much nothing, to the point where I even deleted this blog for a time. I figured a blog without readership or consistent updates just wasn't worth keeping around.

But it was Tobold's recent post about 'Writing for an Audience of One' which inspired me to un-mothball the blog and be more willing to write -for myself- and not care so much how active or on-topic it is. So I figure it can't hurt to keep this place around, especially with Guild Wars 2 on the horizon which may just rekindle my interest in ranting about MMO-related topics regularly again. But even if it doesn't, that's okay. If nothing else this place can always be a fun reminder to myself how my views and opinions on gaming have changed (or not) over the years.

[Interview With a Goldseller]

An oldie (2010) but a goodie, and still relevant to many games today:

Despite the vitriol with which most MMORPG players attack goldfarmers and the whole concept of RMT, the fact is that this market has existed since the birth of the MMO itself and in many ways is actually -enabled- by many of the conventions that oldschool players have held dear since day one (such as monthly fees).