Oct 17, 2012

[We Can't Have It Both Ways]

 via Real Talk: Videogames:
"The gaming community, or let’s say the ones with voices -popular developers, media, and maybe celebrities if we have those- have a cake eating problem. We want to be taken seriously as an artform but don’t often value critical analysis. Game criticism and academia are held in disdain and shoved in corners, dubbed inapplicable. Recycling the same themes, mechanics, and ideologies of game design passes through reviews and feature articles without scrutiny."
   On the one hand, we gamers want our games to be respected as 'art'. On the other hand, the minute any sort of critical lens is placed on themes or mechanics of a game, the cry from many corners is "It's just a game, why are you taking it so seriously? Get a life!"

  But you can't have it both ways. The more that games develop in complexity and scope of their content, the more they will be measured for cultural relevance and judged for their themes. And we'll have to accept that such a development means we gamers need to start seriously examining what and why we play and be prepared to offer better in reply to serious analysis of them other than "It's just a game."

Oct 12, 2012

[How Predatory is F2P?]

Another quote from the F2P Ethics panel at GDC:
"We like to think that the ones spending vast sums on these games are sons of Dubai oligarchs, but we have the data to prove that they're not, and that they probably can't afford to spend what they're spending. We're saying our market is suckers - we're going to cast a net that catches as many mentally ill people as we can!" ~Nik Davidson
  Are some cash shops predatory? Yes. Are many sub games skinner-box grinds designed to milk monthly fees? Yes. Are there some people who should probably stay away from any game (sub or F2P), because they can't control themselves (either time or moneywise)? Yes, but whose job is it to police those people, the game company's?

  Should games (or laws) put limits on how much money a player can spend in a F2P per month? What kind of mechanics can drive 'too much' spending (are they the same mechanics that, in a sub game, encourage 'too much playing'?), and how does worrying about people spending large amounts of money conflict with the 'A few big spenders pay for everyone' structure F2P games are built around?

  And what even IS the monetary definition of a 'big spender' in a F2P game? 20$? 1000$? I've heard that only 5-10% on average in any F2P game spend money, and the definition of 'the average big spender' is a lot less than you'd think. But there is still very little public data about this (at least in English) that I could find.

  There's also this fact to consider -- F2P originally arose in Asia because of the extremely high software piracy rate there (in other words, selling a box would be financial suicide), so from the start there has never been a 'baked-in' requirement for a cash shop-model game to be exploitative or a cheaply-designed money pit rather than a quality game. A F2P game can be both a good game and have a fair cash shop.

  There is a real need for legitimate debate about what 'fair' monetization models for F2P/Freemium games are. I think that it's hard to pin down exactly, because no two games (or cash shops) are the same. I think the Western MMO market is still trying to figure this one out.

Related Reading:
F2P is Not Exploitative
Free vs Pay Games [DICE 2011]
$100k Whales: Intro to Chinese Browser Game Design

Oct 11, 2012

[F2P Is Not the Problem, and it's Also Not the Solution]

Karen Bryan at Massively posted on 'The Ethics of Gaming', questioning if the fad for F2P over subs that companies are rushing to embrace might be a Bad Idea. As someone who made peace with F2P games years ago, I actually agree with her, but for different reasons:
"In order to succeed, MMOs need players, but over the years there's been much more of an emphasis on how to monetize games and generate even more revenue. Back when the western MMO market was largely subscription-based, the key was to get players signing up and sticking around. It didn't necessarily matter how much you played, just that you kept coming back. And players did come back because they were compelled to, not because they were swayed by marketing."
  It's a fallacy to say the only reasons why people stay with F2P games (though 'F2P games' are far from all the same so they shouldn't be lumped together as if they are) is just because of marketing rather than content quality. This might shock some 'sub zealots', but tons of F2P games are succeeding because PEOPLE LIKE TO PLAY THEM, not because cash shops hold some kind of mind-control power over the 'stupid casuals' (which, let's face it, tends to be the stereotype in many anti-F2P players minds of the sort of person who would play a F2P MMO).

  My worry is that instead of learning the lesson as to WHY so many sub MMOs have failed in the wake of WoW's success, these companies will only come away with 'Subs are no longer popular for some reason, we just need to change our monetization scheme!' rather than the core issue which is PEOPLE DIDN'T FEEL YOUR GAME'S CONTENT IS WORTH BOX+15$ A MONTH. That is the true core of the problem here -- if people aren't willing to stick with a MMO with a monthly fee, it's because they don't feel like it's worth that investment of their time or money, and that is a serious issue that being F2P will not magically solve, and neither will 'slick marketing'.

  Why is Rift (which is far from 'revolutionary') still alive after so many other sub fee games failed all around it? Could it be that the frequency of content updates and quality the service it offers its players is considered by them to be 'valuable' enough to be worth paying a monthly fee for? Is this why WoW succeeds where other games who tried to ape it's 'popular gameplay style' failed -- because it provides CONTENT of sufficient concentration that players feel it's worth 15$? Is the reason why people left SWTOR in droves because they felt that what the game offered at level cap was not worth 15$ a month to be allowed continued access to? What is it about a F2P that makes people WANT to buy stuff in the cash shop? What is it about ANY MMO that makes it compelling to players longterm?

  Simply grabbing onto F2P as the savior (or doom) of MMORPGs is a fallacy. Companies are missing the lessons that the market has tried to teach them, if 'trying a new monetization scheme' is their best idea for how to survive in the current MMO environment.

  Players are not seeing these games as having enough gameplay & content value to justify a sub fee. The reason why many sub MMOs are doing poorly is not simply because those games were using an 'obsolete payment model'. If the latter is what all these 'AAA' studios have come away with as their lesson after seeing years of post-WoW MMO failures, then maybe the genre is in peril after all.

Related Reading:
SWTOR's Failure Was Not 'Random Chance'
Should AAA Game Studios Die?

Oct 4, 2012

[Pirate101's Sneak Peek]

  ...Or more like 'Stress Test', going by the throngs of people swarming all over during the 6-hour window the beta was open to the public. Even so, the game was stable and ran fine for me, barring one random 'teleported into space' bug I found when exiting one of the class trainers' rooms.
  I only had the time to play to the point where I received my first ship (level 4), but already I've been charmed by KingsIsle's latest take on their worlds of the Spiral. The naming system alone was pretty entertaining; just hitting 'Random' and seeing how many different piratey names you could get out of it was a lot of fun just by itself. Also, you get to design your own pirate flag along with your appearance! This is the sort of stuff I'm a total sucker for. =P

  KingsIsle has said that Pirate101 is targeted to a slightly older audience than Wizard101, and I do think that there is potential for more complex strategy in combat in P101, going by the little I saw at a early level. Once you engage an enemy, you are presented with a grid of the combat area, and you choose to either move your characters or use abilities across a certain range (basically like simplified RTS units). Once you choose your actions within the allotted time limit, combat will then play out on it's own. Besides straight one-on-one fighting there are also variables such as objects you need to defend for a certain number of turns or other grid objectives that may need to be completed before you can declare victory.

  Unlike Wizard101's card battle system, attacks in P101 are tied to your characters and their 'crew' (NPC party members). Depending on your pirate's class you have access to a set of varying skills, with the option of spending points you earn via leveling to acquire the skills of other classes. This allows you to hybridize your character in multiple ways. The classes you can choose from are Buccaneer as a melee tank, Privateer as group support/healer, Swashbuckler as a stealthy melee dps, Witchdoctor as a debuffer/summoner, and Musketeer as a ranged dps/trapper.

  As you progress you also collect a crew of NPCs that can appear on the board with you, and who have their own skills that you can train. Some crew members are unique to various classes, and complement classes in different ways.  Like in Wizard101, soloing should be viable throughout the whole game, even though grouping is very easy (simply run up to a fighting player to join in; loot and exp is automatically shared fairly).

 Personally, I love turn-based combat (which is one of the reasons I liked Wizard101) and it seems Pirate101 will offer some fun strategy RPG fare for both kids and older players who can appreciate whimsy and lighthearted humor in their games. The animation, art, and storytelling in P101 is very much improved over Wizard101 while still being familiar to folks who've played the earlier game, and is a nice mix of old and new for veteran players.

  The Crowns Shop in P101 appears to be very similar to the one in Wizard101, with mounts, armor, housing, pets, furniture, ships and ship gear (there is also ship combat in the game, though I barely got to try it out), and various buff potions available. In Wizard101, you could get everything you needed without spending real money and I played for nearly 4 years and only ever bought vanity stuff like mounts and housing stuff and never felt I was disadvantaged in any way -- and hopefully that will continue to be the case in Pirate101. One thing I always felt KingsIsle got right in their cash shop was that buying stuff from it always felt fun, rather than being something you were being forced to do in order to properly enjoy the game. As one of the first Western cash shop MMOs, it still amazes me how well they got things right back in 2008 when there are still MMO companies today struggling to figure out how to monetize their games without resorting to being predatory.

  Just like Wizard101, P101 utilizes either a 'monthly-fee plan' or 'buy as you go' system in regards to playing different zones past the newbie area -- for 10$ a month you have free access to everywhere at any time, or else you can buy individual zones for a set (lower) price. For slower/casual players, buying zones as you need them may be a better deal in terms of monthly cost; so technically P101 is more 'Freemium' than 'Free-to-Play'.

  The few hours I had with the game this afternoon went by pretty fast -- so I'm looking forward to Oct. 15th and the official release so I can put some more time into the game. But from what I saw today, Pirate101 looks like it'll be a solid, entertaining game for pirate-fans of all ages.