Archive for June 2013

Why PvE Content Will Be a Coral Reef

This was forwarded to me not too long ago.

Game developers often release PVE content that is like a Coral Reef, i.e. it’s relevant for a period of time (e.g. for some part of an expansion), but eventually with vertical progression (levels and/or gear), players outgrow that content and it’s essentially dead. By the next expansion, the previous expansion’s zones are ghost towns and only visited by those people leveling new characters through them. Over time, what you have is a world where 80% of the zones are no longer relevant, and only 20% is. That is, you have PVE content that evolves like a Coral Reef, and this is primarily due to the unsustainable nature of vertical scaling.

This is, indubitably, true.  Classic RPG progression in an MMO creates a whole host of insidious problems, referred to by old school MUD devs as the ‘Hollow World’ problem.  People tend to play games and hit content in a clump.  A week after launch is often the only time that a level 30-40 zone feels crowded in most MMOs.  After that, it tends to sit empty all the time as people level through it quickly on their alts.  In subscription games like WoW, this also is true at lower levels, as not a lot of new characters are being created.  This is less true at lower levels for F2P experiences, as there’s generally a solid trickle of newcomers coming in.  One side effect of this is that it is hard to do low-to-mid level group content: WoW removed the Heroic difficulty of the questline near Tarren Mill, for example, because it was pretty much impossible to find 4 other people to do it with.

And believe me when I say that MMO designers would love to make less content.  We certainly are aware of the costs of creating the content, especially creating well-tuned and well-balanced content.  And to some degree, we’re already finding ways to extend the life of the content.  Rift has the leader boards he recommends.  WoW and SWTOR both use Achievements to create ‘alternate’ goals, as well as create normal and hardcore modes (and in SWTOR’s case, nightmare mode as well).  But there’s only so far that you can go.  The problems:

1. Content has a shelf life.  Players get sick of playing the same thing over and over again.  I mean, really, really sick of it.  This is less true in PvP because in PvP, other players and the strategies they bring are content.

2. Players like progression.  They like to feel like their character is growing, and they like to feel like challenges are advancing to make that progression worthwhile.

3. Leaderboards are, by their nature, exclusionary.  Which guild can conquer a boss’ hard mode first is hugely important to the top 3 guilds on a server, but isn’t as much of a motivator to the rest of the guilds.  You know how many times Russia has been to the moon?  Zero.  Once they lost the race, they decided they no longer cared.

4. Game designers have a good reason to want to keep players together, content-wise.  If you have a wide band of content that people are trying to conquer, it gets increasingly difficult to do things like recruit a healer if all your healers quit.  By making the ‘entry’ level to endgame content easy to get to and not far below the end level, it is easier for guild leaders to recruit.

5.  Content has a shelf life.  I know I said this, but I can’t stress enough how often I’ve said the phrase “If I have to kill Baron Fucklechips one more time, I swear I’m going to drive to Irvine with a lead pipe”.

On top of that, it merits mention that it is more difficult than one imagines at first to make class-agnostic content.  A good example is that, in the old days, WoW paladins used to get their benefits by getting hit, which meant that they excelled at tanking trash, and were frequently one-shot when tanking bosses without any trash component.  When Heroic instances were launched in Burning Crusade, there were literally dungeons that were untankable by Paladins.  This is less of a problem in raids, where another tank can step in for that one fight, but it also means that the Paladin gets benched, which isn’t a great feeling.

Putting in achievements that don’t invalidate a class is really hard.  An achievement to kill a boss without healing, for example, might really suck for the healer, or it might be trivial to do without the healer, meaning that most players might opt to just slot in a DPS, benching the healer.  Putting in an achievement to dispel every instance of a buff that is cast means that healers that can’t dispel buffs get devalued.  Putting in an achievement to kill a boss in an extremely fast period of time might value burstier DPS over DOT DPS if not designed right.  The net result, tragically, are that over time, designers are forced to make the classes more similar so that more possible group permutations can do the content, and be appropriately challenged by it.

Google+ Games Dies a Quiet, Dignified Death

A lot of talk has been given to the radically quick collapse of the Facebook gaming universe, including Zynga’s recent troubles and jump to the online gambling space.  Left unsaid is that, if you’re a social network other than Facebook, things are probably a lot worse.

Confirmation of that came in the form of this report from Google+, announcing they are phasing out their games channel. I suppose this isn’t a surprise, in that in my limited usage of Google+, I haven’t ever even CONSIDERED playing a game on that platform.  Which in a platform that’s supposed to encourage some level of virality, pretty telling.  Whether its telling about Google+’s viability as a game platform, or its viability overall, is hard to tell.

And They’re Off…

It’s hard for me to diagnose whether my general preference for the XBox One over PS4’s announcement is built upon fact, or upon the general idea that I am, apparently, a Microsoft fan boy.  Or more appropriately, a Sony hater.

In my household, my 360 sees usage nearly daily, although much of that is as a Netflix provider.  The PS3 is probably one of my most hated game-related purchases of all time, and if it weren’t for the fact that it also doubles as my Blu-Ray player, I’m not sure I would have turned it on in the last 6 months.  I don’t think I’ve ever turned it on without it having a compatibility update. The controllers seem to run out of battery life in 24 hours, even when they and the console are off.  The blu-ray player was constantly having compatibility problems.  For God’s sake, they pursued a proprietary remote control technology so that you would be forced to buy one of their shitty remotes instead of being able to use a universal remote.

And these guys are now the heroes of the consumer?  I roll to disbelieve.

To be honest, what I saw from Sony when they launched was just unbelievable arrogance, undoubtedly coupled by them being the winners of the previous console generation.  I didn’t think I was likely to see that kind of arrogance again, but I guess that was before Don Mattrick suggested that anyone who didn’t want to be connected 24/7 should just keep playing their 360 in a tone so serious that you can tell that they all sat around in a marketing meeting and agreed that was their talking point.

Microsoft, when Lewis Black tells you to go fuck yourself on the Daily Show, you need to seriously start worrying about how your message has gotten out of control.

How much does this matter?  Hard to say really.  For all the bluster, spin and jockeying from the last generation of the great console wars, the PS3 and 360 came within spitting distance of each other in terms of consoles sold (about 70-75M each).    The Wii (you know, that other console that would never sell because of the stupid name) ended up coming in at just about 100M.

But then that’s kind of an apples and oranges comparison.  The Wii differs from its competitors in that it was profitable right out of the box, compared to the other two which were both loss leaders. The other two, though, tend to sell a lot more per box.  Still, what is interesting now is a matter of Primacy.

I believe that eventually, most hardcore gamers will buy both systems.  Buying the Xbox One may happen a year after you pick up the PS4, but it will happen. Eventually, they will release a must-have exclusive title, and at the end of the day, these titles are what sell consoles.  The importance of Uncharted, Gears of War, Gran Turismo and Halo to the console wars can’t be understated.

But the real fighting, down in the trenches, is over the stuff that’s not exclusive.  When you buy a copy of Madden or Call of Duty, which console do you choose?  This is the trench warfare of the great console wars, and this is where Primacy comes in.  You’re more likely to choose the one you find most comfortable, the one that is always on and updated.  Sure, you may be swayed to choose one over exclusive content, but most of the time, the battle will come down to things like whether you care about your achievement score on one console or the other.

The effect of Primacy: Despite the fact that there are an equal number of consoles, the Call of Duty series sells better on the 360.  (Black Ops: 12M to 3.2M, Modern Warfare 2 7.5M to 4.8M ).  I think the former has to do with a Holiday bundle.  There’s a reason they do those.  Primacy.

Which means that, even though most gamers will end up buying both consoles, despite their bitching, the one they buy first will get a little internal momentum.  So for right now, advantage Sony.

Why Shut Down OMGPOP?

Buried in the article describing how, rather than being sad about being laid off, most of Zynga New York (formerly OMGPOP) descended into deliriously happy bacchanalia, is this stray observation:

It was hard for the New York office not to take Zynga’s layoffs personally. Mark Pincus said in a company-wide memo that the cuts would aid Zynga’s mobile-first strategy…  But hardly any of the desktop-first Farmville 2 team, comprised of former Facebookers, had been let go.  “We thought, ‘You just laid off your most talented mobile team,'” the former employee says. “We were totally under-utilized.”

OMGPOP is, of course, the company most famous for perhaps Zynga’s most famous mobile game, Draw Something.  That being said, scuttlebutt is that OMGPOP did the web version and contracted out the mobile version to a contract studio, and then refused to let that team advertise that fact.  Which, if true, is interesting in the karma department.

Just Mostly Dead…

The primary problem with the concept of Permadeath in MMOs has always been in a vast disparity between the emotional connection that different kinds of players have towards their characters.  For hardcore roleplayers, their characters are a work of art and passion, personas built over hours, days or months of collaborative playtime with their peers.  For the type of cold-blooded murderer who likes to bathe in the pixellated blood of noobs, though, their avatars aren’t very important.  They are a tools, a means to an end, a hammer in the toolbox used to bash in the hopes and dreams of the innocent.  PK them?  OK, we’ll just make another.

Can this equation be changed?  Perhaps  The Castle Doctrine is in theory trying, by introducing a new server called ‘perma-permadeath’, a game mode where, once you die, your account is actually frozen out of the game.  Even, the article notes, if you are killed by traps you lay out yourself.

For what its worth, I’m not hopeful.  Death penalties directly correlate to the amount of risk that players are willing to take.  The general noobification of death penalties in MMOs is directly related to that – the response to overly punitive death penalties is for players to stop taking any sort of chances and risks and instead play the safest, most conservative gameplay in the game they can find. And while they do this, they will usually complain about being bored.

Where’s Facebook Gaming Going?

Looked at in a vacuum, the Zynga layoffs may seem like just another game developer having standard game developer trouble, similar to the layoffs that Bioware, Blizzard, Rockstar, Midway, and countless other developers have had over the years.

But there are some subtle differences.  This is the second round of layoffs (at least) for Zynga.  EA has reportedly experienced some caution as well, and may have reduced investment in Playfish (no, I don’t have any insight on that side of EA).  Playfish was #3 behind Zynga.  #2 was Playdom, which reportedly has also undergone some stress in the same round of self-evaluation that resulted in Raph Koster leaving and Junction Point shutting down.

All this despite the fact that Facebook reports that game revenues have actually increased significantly.  It’s clear that, somehow, Facebook gaming is in a state of heavy change.  Whether or not it is currently in a state of transition, or whether we’ll discover that Facebook gaming was really a fad, remains to be seen.  One hopes that if it does become revitalized, it will center on sustainable business models and fun game design rather than figuring out how to monetize .02% of 10 million people.

Which is to say, I often wonder how Facebook would have evolved as a game platform if Zynga hadn’t been the first 700 pound gorilla out of the gate.

World of Tanks Steps Tentatively Away from ‘Pay to Win’

This article is significant, in that World of Tanks is considered the premier ‘pay to win’ success story in the North American market.

The core basis of “free-to-win” is to remove all payable options that could be viewed as giving a player an advantage in battle. Revenue will come from sales of non-advantageous content, such as premium vehicles, personalization options and the like.

Their definition of ‘free-to-win’ appears to be that players who play for free can work for and get anything that paying players can eventually get that offers a gameplay advantage.

We made in-game purchases that were previously only available to paying players open to all players. Things like gold rounds, premium consumables, camouflage patterns, emblems, platoon creation and other features were switched over to be purchasable with in-game credits…. players can still) use gold to buy credits, pay for premium account status, or purchase premium vehicles.

Whether or not this fully matches what players consider as F2P, the fact that is publically moving loudly in this direction has pretty big ramifications for the industry as a whole, largely in a direction that I think is good for gamers.

Yes, Virginia, XBox One’s DRM Move Is The Right One

It’s now been about a week since XBox announced The One, including obliquely hinting that games will be locked to one console, and the entire Internet responded with rage not seen the Matrix: Reloaded turned out to be an exercise in Wachowski wankery. This caused Microsoft to backpedal, albeit in a vague, nondescript sort of way that suggests they are either changing their plans or pummelling their PR department into figuring out how to spin the move as being a good one for consumers. Which is a shame, because it probably is.

Now then, I have never shipped a console game – I’ve been in MMOs my entire career, which are in their own state of transition – so I’m watching this all from a distance, and I don’t really have a dog directly in the fight. That being said, I find it comical that the fanboys of the world are absolutely indignant that the way that they buy video games might change forever. Here’s a free clue: this has already happened. The consumer economics of buying video games has already changed forever. The console makers are now merely trying to keep themselves relevant in this changing world.

Change #1 is Steam. Right now, you can buy Borderlands and Skyrim on Steam for less than the cost of what you can buy the same titles for at EBWorld -used.  Sure, it’s off by a buck or two, but as a consumer I gain other benefits, such as the fact that I don’t have to put on pants to buy Skyrim – I can continue my antisocial ways.  I also no longer have to worry about losing or scratching my CD or a host of other problems – I merely have to hope that Steam doesn’t go out of business anytime soon, and my games will be accessible from any computer forever.

Steam is doing a couple of key things lost to the casual game player.  First off, its extending the ‘shelf life’ of games a great deal.  You can now buy all of the Tropicos on steam right now – good luck finding any of them at Best Buy.  The lack of physical inventory means that the store can get infinitely big.  All of this creates an insane level of competition on steam, though, which creates strong price pressure downwards.  Which results in Steam’s various weekend madness sales.

Steam also has more financial upside for game developers.  Consider how a standard $60 box sale is split.  For most console games, the console maker gets a 20% chunk and Gamestop gets a 20% chunk. Rumors have it that Steam’s is only 30%. On top of that, Steam dramatically reduces the value of the publisher in a relationship. Getting published by EA or Ubisoft is not just about getting access to funding, which is crucial, but it also gives you access to their retail distribution network – it takes a lot of money and logistics to ship games to Gamestops and Walmarts across the globe on launch day, and part of why EA is a juggernaut is that they’ve got a well-oiled machine. Steam removes all of this value from the Publisher’s end of the equation, which gives developers more leverage in negotiations. It is not an accident that PC ports of console games have actually started to match the quality of the console games themselves if you plug your controller into your PC. The developer really would prefer you bought that version.

The second change is League of Legends bringing free to play to the hardcore gaming market. Previously, F2P was the province of only kooky Koreans making goofy MMOs unpalatable to the American audience, due to an uncomfortable number of panty shots. Now, though, it’s cutting into almost every genre you can imagine.

It’s not hard to imagine a world where the Box Sale (and by extension, Gamestop’s brick and mortar stores) are a curious anachronism as soon as 5 years from now. Right now, any MOBA that comes out would be considered suicidal if it tried to charge $60 bucks for a game that competes with LOL. Tribes forces that same question on any first person shooter that’s coming out. Both The Elder Scrolls and Wildstar are making noises like they plan on having a traditional subscription/box sale model, but there’s a strong argument that the wealth of free options available (including the recently converted SWTOR and the designed-for-microtransactions Neverwinter Nights) will make this a pretty hostile arena to step into. The iPhone games market has converted almost entirely from premium to free in the last couple of years. One by one, we will see other genres and platforms go free, until eventually, any game that doesn’t do so will stick out like a creepy forty year old man in a trenchcoat at a playground. Box products will likely evolve to become ‘DLC packs’ that exist largely so your mom can physically purchase something to put under the tree come Christmastime.

The thing about Free to Play, though, is that its not really free. It turns out that game programmers need to pay rent too, so F2P games require microtransactions. It requires an easy to use online store, it requires no piracy, etc, etc. Right now, this is an easy and natural thing to do on a PC. Game developers do not want to make games with two different billing models on two different platforms.

I guess this is all a very longwinded way of saying that the changes that players are afraid that XBox One have already happened on other platforms. Steam licenses are non-transferrable. iPhone games as well, and most iPhone games have already made the move towards being F2P/Microtransaction games. Microsoft has to care a lot more about how they fit into THAT particular competitive landscape much more than they need to worry about the premature hystrionics of some myopic fanboys.

Also, Gamestop is evil and almost all game developers would be happy to watch them die.